when you’re younger than everyone you manage

A reader writes:

I recently accepted a job as a low-level manager (of a team of 8). I’m an outside hire. I have never had a supervisory position before. These problems seem surmountable – I’m smart and competent and good with people. The biggest issue I’m having is that I’m in my mid-20s, which makes me younger than everyone I’ll be managing. Even worse, I’m frequently mistaken for a high school student. I’m worried that no one will take me seriously or listen to me. Am I being paranoid? Is there anything I can do to make my age less obvious?

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. Bend & Snap*

    This may seem like random advice, but make sure your clothes fit well. There’s a young-looking manager at my workplace who wears suits (he’s the only one on his team who does), I think to make him look older. But they’re all too big which makes him look like he’s playing dress up.

    Being really pulled together appearance wise will help while you’re getting your feet under you.

    And being confident. Fake it till you make it.

    1. Eva G.*

      As you say, it may seem random, but it really is great advice. As superficial as it seems, a physical makeover can go a really long way toward making a young person’s authority less questionable at first glance. This includes not just clothes and shoes, but also hairstyle (and makeup in the case of a woman). Get someone with a good eye for such things to look you over and advise you on what you can modify to look more authoritative.

      1. UKAnon*

        I don’t think make-up matters whatever your gender unless you’re comfortable wearing it – otherwise it just adds to making you feel awkward. I think there is something to be said for balancing looking the way people expect *and* looking in a way that makes you feel confident in terms of best results.

        1. Eva G.*

          I wasn’t thinking so much of “makeup” vs. “no makeup” but more of the kind of makeup one wears if one chooses to wear it. For example, wearing noticeable eye makeup but neglecting the brows screams “teenager” to me, because I’ve seen so many young people do it and I don’t really recall seeing that particular mishap in the professional world.

          1. Tobias Funke, Analrapist*

            It’s funny you mention that, because I’ve always wondered if my meticulously filled in eyebrows pinged “young instagran Kardashian wannabe”. (I had a very long battle with trichotillamania as a teen, and my brows need help now.) I mean, I think it pulls my face together and my natural brows are so sparse I am not comfortable going outside without them filled in. But I wondered if others felt differently.

            1. kozinskey*

              Interesting. I find myself kind of creeped out when someone has noticeably penciled-in eyebrows. That being said, I’m in my mid-20s and have never filled mine in so now I’m wondering if I’ve been committing a fashion faux pas for years. (I have pretty full, but light, brows, fwiw.)

              1. Eva G.*

                If you wear black eyeliner and your brows are very light, then that might be an example of the contrast I mentioned which I associate with youth. But if no one has ever said anything to you about it then I’m guessing you’re in the clear, because it invites comment. (I’m in Scandinavia where many people are very fair so it’s probably a more prevalent phenomenon here.)

                As for getting creeped out over noticeably penciled-in eyebrows, I think the operative word is “noticeably”. It can be done very subtly (usually not with pencil but with powder, I believe).

                1. Bend & Snap*

                  I’m really fair and wear dark eyeliner/mascara, and the only person who has commented on my eyebrows is my mother.

                  I think I should probably darken them but the concept weirds me out, for some reason. Just for me, I don’t notice it on others.

                2. Mabel*

                  After my 50th birthday, various things changed a bit physically, and I now wear makeup (hardly ever did before), and I really need to fill in my eyebrows. When they do my makeup at Sephora, my eyebrows look amazing, and I hope they look passable (or better) when I do them myself. As long as the OP looks professional, I think that’s probably fine. I think it’s good to pay attention to one’s overall look, but if we get too worked up about specifics (eyebrows, etc.), it can end up making one worry over something that’s really not a big deal.

            2. anonanonanon*

              I also dealt with trichotillamania as a teenager, only with eyelashes instead of eyebrows. It’s honestly the only reason I started wearing mascara.

          2. Soupspoon McGee*

            I have very sparse, pale brows, and I got them tattooed. They look so much better, and much more natural. The tipping point was when my then-17-year-old stepson looked at me one morning before I’d penciled in my brows and yelped, “What happened to your face?!?”

          3. Anx*

            Maybe this is what I’m doing ‘wrong.’ The only thing I ever do to my brows it comb them up sometimes and pluck a few strays. Oh well.

    2. Muriel Heslop*

      I became a manager at 23 and this advice is spot-on! Well-fitting professional clothes were my best investment along with a haircut. I was frequently mistaken for a high-schooler or the intern (I was asked for student ID on the first day of teaching middle school – at 26!) and when I dressed more professionally, I felt so much better.

      Another great piece of advice I received from a much more experienced colleague: speak in a calm, low voice. It really helped!

      1. blackcat*

        When I did my student teaching, one of the other student teachers asked me how it was that I never got mistaken for a student, given that I was even more petite than her and had a very youthful face (and stubbornly did not wear make up). Apparently it happened to her all the time. She was 24 at the time and I was 21.

        I took one look at her and asked, “Did you buy those pants in the junior section?”
        “Yes, but why does that matter?”
        “Your butt looks great in them. You need pants that will mean no one notices your butt. Think about the pants your mom or a friend’s mom wears to the office. Go get some of those.”

        She genuinely didn’t understand that “pants make me look really attractive” =/= teaching appropriate pants. She further commented that she had never noticed that my pants looked different from hers. That was precisely the point: no one noticed my pants.

        (When I started teaching in my full time job, at the age of 22, my students all assumed I was like 30 years old. Their parents, on the other hand, seemed to see right through all of my attempts at dressing professionally and would say things like “Oh, you look so young, you could be my kid!” )

    3. T3k*

      Second the confidence thing. I’m a very small, petite female who is constantly reminded by others that I look like a college student, but I tend to give off an air of confidence that makes people think I know what’s going on, or will figure it out very shortly.

    4. Jessa*

      This, so much. There’s this game show* that I watch and I like it but no matter how many times I see an episode I cannot help but being annoyed as heck that the host’s suit does not fit properly (pulls across the middle, and he never unbuttons the jacket so it’s incredibly obvious.) Either he’s buying them too small, or wardrobe does not know how to set a microphone pack in a way that doesn’t screw up the suit. But it drives me nuts. I keep wanting to tell him to go visit Alex Trebek and find out who his tailor is. Because it’s not just one suitcoat. It’s every single episode, every single jacket he wears has the same problem. It just makes him look so unprofessional.

      (*if anyone cares it’s Idiotest on GSN and the host is comedian Ben Gleib.)

  2. UKAnon*

    I don’t know if it helps OP – and I certainly don’t follow this advice myself daily – but whenever I need a confidence boost for something specific, I try and dress in ways I know makes me feel more confident. Big presentation/speech? I wear heels because they make me stride. Maybe for your first few days on the job, little things like that would help you to present a confident appearance to the world?

    Good luck with your new role! Remember that the company hired you because they believe in you and don’t be afraid of approaching your own manager – it’s what they’re there for.

    1. Chalupa Batman*

      I joke sometimes that my colleagues know I’m nervous about something if I’m wearing both heels AND earrings. I’m just learning to accessorize like an adult (yay for scarves!), and those two things make me feel like I look “done” with minimal risk of looking ridiculous. It’s almost impossible to walk timidly in heels. I’m short, so I stick to 3 inches or shorter to prevent the dress-up factor.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Scarves are great accessories. I discovered them last autumn and I feel weird when I don’t wear one. They really dress up an outfit. I haven’t been wearing them too much lately, though, because it’s 59840657 degrees out and I don’t have many light ones.

  3. Ali*

    In my last job, I had a younger manager. He was 25 (maybe 24?) and was supervising employees who were largely older than him; we were all mid to late 20s or early 30s. He was a good guy and is one of my references to this day, but he could not manage his time and admitted this to me. While I made jokes with him once or twice about his inability to make meetings on time or to schedule anything, I secretly questioned how competent he could really be if he confessed to being so scatterbrained, to the point where he couldn’t even manage to reserve a conference room if he needed it. I didn’t respect him as much since he was basically admitting that he was inexperienced at leading a team. I wish he had faked it till he made it or not said anything.

    The point I’m trying to make…be careful about how much you publicly let on your weaknesses. It didn’t help my manager earn a lot of respect with me. (That is, until the boss who replaced him was 26 and had his own faults that made me better appreciate my prior manager.)

    1. fposte*

      I think that’s a good example of “other people take their cues from you,” as Alison describes in the article. I don’t know if this was what was happening in his case, but some people feel like they’re being usefully honest if they admit their shortcomings but it’s really about negotiating impostor syndrome and being awkward with your own authority. I think it’s fine to say things about information deficits (“I’m not familiar with that database–can you give me a few words to explain how it differs from Access?), but you don’t want to chat cheerfully about your performance deficits with your staffers, at least not until you’ve worked with them a long time and you know they see your overall awesomeness.

      1. Cordelia Naismith*

        Yes, I agree. Trying to act like you know everything makes you seem really insecure. Nobody knows everything, and confident, competent people aren’t afraid to admit that.

        But, on the other hand, you don’t want to advertise your own flaws. You want to project a confident aura, and you can’t do that if you’re always talking about how bad you are at X or how Y is so hard.

  4. TootsNYC*

    Part of (true, only part) the difficulty in this situation is because the first “authority” most of us experience is that of parents. And after that, teachers.

    So too many bosses use a parenting approach, and too many subordinates as well.
    Or they go for the autocratic approach that lots of teachers use. Neither is a perfect translation into the work world.
    (True, some tactics are the same in both places, and not all parents use the stereotypical scolding approach that often comes to mind with parenting.)

    So I’d say, think about authority, etc., in non-parental ways.

    I supervise people who could all do my job. They’re all qualified.

    It’s not about me bossing them around. It’s about me being charged with the task of thinking big-picture, and them being charged with the task of focusing on what’s right in front of them. Sure, if we’re smart, we will each occasionally take on the mindset of the other. But our primary responsibilities are different.

    So a manager’s job is to *enable* her employees to do their jobs. To set and communicate goals, procedures. To advocate for them; to run interference. To go “buy paint” right when they’re getting close to finishing up “the paint job in the first room.” To provide accountability and a framework (that’s “discipline” for grownups; that word is often used to mean “punishment and scolding” in a more parental approach).

    1. Laurs*

      I love this and am off to work out how to use this approach in my new job – going from managing 1 admin to managing a team of managers… when I’m much younger and arguably less experienced than most of them.

  5. Stranger than fiction*

    Id also look into leadership training/courses. They seem to be all the rage right now and maybe her company would even pay for it. Or buy Alisons Managmemt book!

  6. K*

    I once met someone who, while not particular young-looking, was a petite woman in charge of teaching a class full of dudes (don’t remember the material, though). She recommended a good way to appear and feel in charge is to adopt the superhero (or superwoman) stance.

  7. Lisa*

    I struggle with this too. I’m fine with directing older people and older, more experienced men day to day, but I feel super awkward hiring. A candidate for a job that was clearly on my team recently asked “Who would I be reporting to?” and although this is a reasonable thing to want to confirm, my own anxieties made me read this as “would I really be reporting to YOU?”

    I work in a very casual environment where upping my level of dress would seem weird and off-key. So I try to convey authority through attitude and tone of voice more than anything – I coach my team actively, make decisions in a decisive voice, and opt out of social situations (especially “let’s all complain about X”) that are mostly a thing non-managers do.

  8. Techfool*

    Most people don’t require close supervision. As a manager your job is to set the objectives, sit on interminable (sp?) meetings, deliver bad news, be unpopular from time to time and justify your team to the higher ups. If you’re willing to do that then have at it! Most people don’t want to manage, they shouldn’t have a problem with you wanting to.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, there’s generally more to it than that: giving feedback, assessing performance, monitoring progress against goals, holding people accountable, recognizing great performance, hiring/developing/retaining/letting people go when needed, etc.

      1. Techfool*

        Yep, I’d add that in with stuff I wouldn’t want to do again.
        Most places seem to be handing that off to HR though, to the extent that the HR person reads to you what your boss wrote in your appraisal.

        1. Graciosa*

          I don’t think that “most places” are handing off performance appraisals to HR in this manner – I’ve literally never heard of this until your post, so it can’t be that much of a trend. It sounds like you haven’t had a manager who invested the proper amount of time in your growth and career development.

          This is a major part of my job, and it’s not the sort of thing that can be done effectively in one appraisal meeting per year. I just checked my calendar for the week, and I already have five individual meetings with employees on my team – this is not unusual, doesn’t reflect any problems, and is pretty typical for my schedule. I am expecting a sixth to be added (the requesting employee hasn’t sent the notice yet) and I also have some short (ten minute) touch points with the full team.

          The individual meetings can cover any of the items Alison listed above. I do give feedback – hopefully in a more useful and timely fashion than if I waited and had a surrogate give it once a year. I ask about how things are going and what obstacles I can clear. Some employees come in with lists of questions or topics (which is great).

          Management requires investing a lot of time talking to people. You earn your employees’ trust by how you handle the smaller stuff, and you have to do this all the time if you want them to come to you when they would otherwise think talking to the boss about X is too high risk.

          If you don’t want to do any of this, that’s fine – not everyone does. But good management can make more of difference than you seem to believe. I cherish memories of employees who thanked me for helping them master new skills, solve problems, or win promotions for which they hadn’t realized they might be ready.

          Yes, there are long hours and some seemingly interminable meetings – but if you care about investing in people, it can absolutely be worth it.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Totally agreeing here — people are not handing this stuff off to HR; in fact, this stuff can’t be handed off to HR in any real way.

  9. Cordelia Naismith*

    One thing you can do to project an air of confident authority is to be aware of your speaking patterns. Things like upspeak and vocal fry can become habitual to the point where we don’t notice we’re using them, but they really make you seem young and unsure of yourself. Try to avoid them if you can.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Thank you, I didn’t know there was a name for what a coworker does that drives me nuts. And guess what, she even writes that way by putting question marks after every sentence!

      1. fposte*

        Oh, that’s a big Tumblr thing, too. I understand how it mirrors speaking patterns, but I don’t like it much either.

      2. Cordelia Naismith*

        Ugh, no. It’s one way to write that way on Tumblr or some other informal setting (although why would you want to unless you’re actually asking a question?); it’s quite another to write that way in any kind of professional setting.

  10. evelynn*

    Rather than feeling awkward, make sure that you don’t become defensive or over manage in an attempt to overcompensate for any awkwardness about your age.

    I work in high schools during the day and recently had a part-time job working with high school age co-workers in the evening. I was actually quite proud of many of them, because they were confident and knew their jobs. I had no problems following direction from people who were younger than me if they knew how to do their job and manage others tactfully.

    Working in schools, I tend to dress better than many of my co-workers. I will take any shred of credibility wherever I can get it! I dress well, because I take my job seriously. Most importantly, I just makes me feel slightly more comfortable and confident about myself. Kids, generally, don’t care. I do know several *good* teachers who wear gym shorts and sneakers. It doesn’t make them any worse as teachers or lessen their credibility because they know how to set expectations and manage a classroom.

  11. Mindy*

    My first job out of school at age 23 was as a supervisor to 5 supervisors and 60+ employees, 95% at least 10 years older than myself and 50% >twice my age. This particular position was viewed as an entry level job and people just like me moved through it every 2-5 years. The employees knew it, I knew it and it didn’t bother anyone. I am sure that OP has a boss that can give input and support, or find a mentor in another area, if necessary. Focus on doing your job the best you can and forget about your age. Some day you will be supervising people the age of your children, or younger, and then you can worry that you are out of touch and have management issues because they are so much younger than you are!

  12. DavidR*

    When I was in the military we had a new Hospital Admin Officer posted in.
    I think she was 23 at the time.
    We figured the system would eat her alive.
    She turned out to be one of the most professional, competent officers that I encountered in my 20 year career.
    My point here is that when it comes down to it, the way you conduct yourself, and perform your duties should be the indicator by which you are judged.
    My advice, listen to advice from your team. Don’t mistake advice as criticism or defiance, and don’t let yourself be bullied.

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