my older employee keeps talking about my age

A reader writes:

I recently started a brand new position (new department at the company). They hired me as the department manager and also hired a project coordinator (my direct report). We have just completed our first week together.

I am in the awkward learning curve of trying to figure out my role along company policies, procedures and culture while trying to provide direction and support for project coordinator. It has become quickly obvious that my direct report has a major issue with my age (I would guess I am 20 years younger then her). She’s making comments like, “Gosh, it’s crazy to have a supervisor that is the same age as my daughter” or “This structure will be an adjustment for me, I am used to being in the drivers seat, good for you for advancing in your career so quickly.”

With the first comment, I was in complete shock. Who says anything to their supervisor about their age?!? I have since used subtle humor tactics to divert / pivot from her age hangups, but they continue to sneak in. How should I proceed? It doesn’t help that we are both new and she obviously feels like we are on equal footing. For the record, I am not that young (37) nor do I look youthful (despite all of those expensive face creams).

When subtle humor works in these situations, it can be a great thing; it can let the other person save face and let you both avoid an awkward conversation. But I think of it as a one-shot deal; if the message doesn’t seem to land, then you need move to a more direct conversation. Continuing to just hint or pivot is too passive for a manager/employee relationship.

So it’s time to switch over to being very direct. The next time she makes a comment about your relative ages, stop the conversation and address it right in the moment: “Jane, you’ve mentioned our relative ages several times. I’m assuming it won’t be an issue for you.” And then just stop and see what she says. She may squirm, she may be embarrassed, or she may dig in her heels and make another comment about how it’s just unusual for her. If she does the latter, than you should say, “It doesn’t strike me as odd, but I’d rather we not get sidetracked on it.”

Hopefully this will be enough to convey to her that the comments need to stop. But if not and she continues, watch to see how frequent it is as she gets settled in, and also how aggressive it is. If it’s just a couple more comments and they’re not particularly egregious, I’d let it go — there’s actually power in not being rattled by it, and in not feeling you have to address every little challenge to your authority. (For example, “Good for you for advancing in your career so quickly” probably doesn’t need to be a big deal unless it’s said snidely or is part of a pattern of constant age references.) But if it’s frequent and/or aggressive, then yeah, you do need to stamp it out with something like, “Our ages really aren’t relevant here. Is there a reason you keep mentioning them?”

My bigger worry here, though, would be whether these are just naive and clumsy comments, or whether they indicate a deeper problem on her end with reporting to someone younger. If they’re just comments, you can probably move past them pretty quickly. But if she resents having you as her manager or doesn’t respect your ability to do your job, that’s an issue you’ll need to nip in the bud by addressing it just as you would any other performance issue. For example: “I’ve noticed you seem reluctant to take on assignments I give you. What’s going on?” Or, “We agreed that you’d do X, but you did Y. What happened?” … escalating to, if it continues, “In this role, I need you to do XYZ. Can you do that going forward?” There’s more advice on this here.

Meanwhile, though, the best thing that you can do is to treat her like you haven’t even noticed your age difference. Don’t let yourself feel awkward about it, remember that you were hired for a reason, and operate with the confidence of your position.

{ 114 comments… read them below }

  1. caryatid

    alison, i have a question about your advice – the initial address you mention, where you advise the LW to stop the conversation to call this out – would you recommend doing this in front of other colleagues? or would it be better to pull her aside or wait for a time when she does this when the two of them are alone?

    i guess i’m also wondering if she does this in front of others or just when they are by themselves together.

      1. OP

        Yes, Alison – We are currently a team of two. But, we anticipate growth and team additions in the near future. I would like to address this directly and long before new members join the team! Thanks for selecting my question. I have appreciated all of the feedback.

  2. Mike C.

    There’s an Op-Ed in a recent edition of the LA Times that feels very appropriate here. Link below.

    1. Mike C.

      Link.

      And yes, it’s satire. Yet you can find hundreds of articles online that are completely serious yet have the two groups flipped.

          1. MashaKasha

            Another GenXer, and as someone working in a field that’s notorious for age discrimination, with everyone around me (including my managers) 10-15 years younger than I, I’m just fine being invisible. I just walk into the office every day, cross my fingers, and hope today won’t be the day when they realize that I have children their age (or close to it).

      1. themmases

        Thank you for the laugh! I was definitely thinking “well this is certainly the opposite of the dynamic you usually have to read about” as I read this letter.

      2. Alter_ego

        Oh man, and the number of people in the comments taking it seriously and wailing about how it doesn’t apply to them. I sincerely hope they’ve never even uttered the word “millenial”

      3. Mockingjay

        “Older colleagues may drop comments such as, “I have children your age!” Under no circumstance should you point out that you have parents their age.”

        I just spit out my sandwich. Hahahaha! Wait a minute…I am the parent. Sigh.

      4. Lillian McGee

        “Just smile and don’t stop smiling for the duration of your employment.”

        Sometimes I feel like this is the only solution…

      5. Vicki

        Thank you so much for pointing out that it’s satire. I saw the pull quote first and would have been very annoyed if I hadn’t expected something offbeat.

        “NEVER say, ‘This is so easy.’ Recognize that baby boomers have a lot of fear and anger about technology, and tread gently.”

        1. Vicki

          Unfortunately:
          – This is the LA Times
          – This is an Op Ed in the LA Times
          – It’s dated March 25, not April 1
          – It’s not marked as satire

          Unless something is printed in the Onion, it should be marked “Humor”.

    2. fposte

      That was not at all what I was expecting, satirically speaking–I thought it was actually quite sweet.

      But, of course, the comments are bristlier than a truckload of hairbrushes.

  3. Snarkus Aurelius

    Be cautious about making this about age alone.  Yes, that’s what the subject matter is, but it’s also about her way of handling that matter, which is more about her as an employee than the age gap between you.

    I’ve fallen into this trap myself with some individuals who were my parents’ age and who didn’t like me asking them for stuff even though I was higher up.  All they could do was bristle and be passive-aggressive because taking it higher would get them nowhere.  Because of my focus on their age, I ignored the many other amazing employees who were also in that same age group but who didn’t act that way at all.

    I had to recondition myself to not look at the two outliers as older people who treated me like one of their kids; I had to look at them as uncooperative and ironically immature employees who didn’t want to do what they were asked.  The latter is something I’ve dealt with in ALL age groups.  I also learned to filter out the “helpful advice” and “who asked you to ask me” crap and only deal with the stuff I needed.  Ignoring them as much as I could lifted a huge burden off me.

    1. Alli525

      But wouldn’t singling out the age bias and removing it from the conversation then sort of FORCE the underlying issue to come up, or else result in compliance? Once you take age off the table, if they do have issue with the way you do something, they have to either bring it up or they have to accept your decision and comply. (Or become insidious saboteurs, but…)

  4. New Math

    I think sometimes comments like these come from a feeling of embarrassment, that perhaps she has concerns you look down on her for apparently not achieving as much as you have despite having 20 more years to do it. So in addition to Alison’s advice, I would also make sure she hears where she is valued for qualities that are uniquely hers. If she is better than you at something, acknowledge it (“You always know the right thing to say in these situations”…”I would never have thought of that solution”… “Can I hand this off to you? You are faster at it than I am”).

    1. Three Thousand

      I have a feeling it’s something like this. I’m surprised by the “advancing quickly” comment because it made me think the OP was in her early 20s or something, but this is probably just about how the employee feels about her own career.

    2. dr_silverware

      No, it’s probably more appropriate to treat her like you’d treat a respected employee in general. I don’t know if the LW would want to be sycophantic about it. The source of the comments may be, as you say, from feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment, but those feelings are really the employee’s to deal with.

      1. dackquiri

        Agreed. Even though we don’t know how many people LW is managing, issuing praise to be nice or to covertly assuage someone’s insecurities could cause problems amongst other employees who take it at face value (and really have no reason not to), and see it as undue or their lack of such praise as a poor reflection of their own efforts.

      2. New Math

        I was not suggesting disingenuous praise or sycophantic treatment. There are valuable skills and traits this person may be bringing to the job by virtue of her lengthy experience both in the field and in life. If it is acknowledged in the normal course of business, it may help the employee get more comfortable. People’s feelings are important, and if a manager can help an employee move beyond a place of discomfort to one of greater comfort, everyone benefits, including the company. To say an employee’s feelings are her own problem may be true in the abstract, because we are all ultimately in charge of how we feel, but it is a basic human kindness to recognize when someone is struggling and to offer whatever we think might help in the moment. Moreover, this is an expectation for managers where I work. Just a little empathy.

        1. dr_silverware

          I think we’re mostly on the same page, but it’s a dangerous line to walk to do that extra praise based on the employee’s age, etc. If the employee is really great and it’s due to her experience in the field, then by all means lay on the positive feedback; in other cases, I think it’s likely to come off either patronizing or as the LW putting herself down.

          1. AnonT

            I think what New Math is suggesting isn’t extra praise, just being more obvious about praise that the employee had coming anyway. Some employees are just happier receiving very obvious praise, while others are okay with more subtle hints instead of outright statements.

            And honestly, I can’t see how doing this could hurt. The OP only has the one report, so it’s not like she would be giving more praise to this older person and less to a younger one. (Although you’re right that she would have to avoid even a hint of self-deprecation, just in case.)

      3. Lily in NYC

        No one has to be sycophantic. There’s nothing wrong with tailoring one’s style to different coworkers – it’s kind of the entire idea around DISC training. So if OP’s coworker just needs a little reassurance, what’s so bad about that? There’s ways of going about it without anyone feeling demeaned.

        1. Lily in NYC

          Actually, I take it back. It seems like it would be more like coddling that reassurance now that I think about it.

    3. Bookworm

      I agree; these comment are a more a reflection of her than they are of OP. It’s not unlikely she feels a bit underachieving or embarrassed to be reporting to someone so much younger than her.

    4. MK

      I don’t think that’s wise with someone who already feels like she is on an equal footing with the OP, as if her age balanced out the OP’s superior position. I mean, of course she should get praise for things she does well, but don’t try to placate her into behaving better; it probably won’t work, in fact she might feel that the OP is acknowledging the “unfairness”.

      I sympathise with this person’s feelings. Unless there are unusual circumstances (as in, the boss is an absolute genius at what they do, the boss is a member of the family who owns the company, the employee took long periods of time out of workforce, the employee made a late-life career change, the boss and the employee are actually on different career ladders), having a much younger boss might mean your career has stagnated, while this took off. But these are private reflections on your life, not something your workplace should indulge or accommodate.

      1. SerfinUSA

        I am in the late-stages of my ‘career’ after some planned and unplanned life-changes over the years. I relocated 10 years ago (from large West Coast city to small West Coast college town) and am in the job I will most-likely retire from. My bills get paid, my non-work life is excellent, and I don’t feel the need at all to ladder-climb or compete with newer employees.
        But…some of the newer employees are millennials, and as much as I appreciate their rapport with our patrons (academic library), and their native social-media fluency, they do tend to be incredibly dismissive of older coworkers who do things differently. The vibe is that the old fogeys are clueless, and practices & policies are just roadblocks to efficiency. It often takes a crash & burn before they step back and acknowledge that while a few old-timers are just chair-warming, many have honed their chops over the years and actually have a clue.
        I don’t think older people have a ‘jones for humility’ as much as we’d like the youngsters to evaluate the situation before steamrollering over established methods.

        1. Observer

          Well, it was a satire piece.

          In any case, nothing you describe is unique to “millennials”. Maybe I’m unusual, but I remember that kind of conversation from my younger days. I was lucky, in that I somehow managed to pick up the idea that rules need to be followed, and at least as often as not, there were good reasons for annoying rules. But, I have to admit that I was somewhat unusual in that respect.

          You use the term “crash and burn” in a metaphoric sense, but it can get literal. One of the most common and dangerous places where young people scoffed at the rules (and probably still do) is around traffic.

        2. The Strand

          That’s a serious bummer. Perhaps you could show them the research on how “digital native” millenials are actually not particularly savvy with technology. There’s much work decrying the myth; one of my former colleagues wrote his dissertation on the topic after an exhaustive quantitative study.

          The “native social media fluency” our youngest professionals are supposed to have is often a crock. Many younger people know how to use the tools but have no ideas about reputation management. And many more don’t know how to use the tools either.

      2. Rit

        Agreed. If the employee DOES feel like the OP doesn’t ‘deserve’ the role, deliberately downplaying her (the OP’s) skills and strengths isn’t going to help change that.

      3. OP

        Hi – I am totally not a genius at what I do. I however have vast experience in an area that is “new” and developing within the sector I work in. For years, my position felt “out of place” and now there is a growing need and desire for people to develop and lead these initiatives. The employee did make a career change and her previous work was owning her own business. I am certain this will all work out (and quickly) as I don’t have time or place for it within my day or us growing as a team. The past couple days it appears her comments by be coming from embarrassment or a bit of self reflection. Totally not for me to accommodate, but I am trying to have a place of understanding.

      4. Doriana Gray

        I don’t think that’s wise with someone who already feels like she is on an equal footing with the OP, as if her age balanced out the OP’s superior position. I mean, of course she should get praise for things she does well, but don’t try to placate her into behaving better; it probably won’t work, in fact she might feel that the OP is acknowledging the “unfairness”.

        I was going to say this. A simple “good job” when she does something well is okay. But saying anything to the effect of how OP’s report does anything better than her can just make the situation worse. If direct report really is feeling some kind of way about the age difference, she’ll certainly start feeling there’s an injustice that her boss is less skilled than she is – boss even admitted it!

        Yeah, stay away from that language, OP.

    5. AnotherHRPro

      In my experience, people who bristle at reporting to a younger manager tend to have hang-ups about their own career and success. If they aspire to more, reporting to someone younger reminds them that they have not achieved what they wanted to.

      In addition to directly addressing the behavior you are seeing (the comments about reporting to someone younger) I would encourage you to work with your employee on their career and development. What are their career goals, what development do they need to achieve those aspirations? Show them how valuable they are in their role and recognize their contribution, but also differentiate your role from theirs. Make sure they understand what your are responsible for vs. what they do. This helps reinforce that you are the boss, but also educates them on what they need to be prepared to do if they ever have the opportunity to take on your position.

      1. OP

        I appreciate your suggestions. I have inquired about career goals and professional development. She has expressed that she isn’t looking for advancement or growth, but just to do something she cares about. I do believe she will need encouragement as it appears she is a bit uncomfortable at entering a formal office structure.

    6. Lily in NYC

      I was thinking the same thing! I have a coworker like this – she is an admin in her late 60s who had a management position in a bank when she was younger and it’s obvious that she feels insecure about it. She constantly says “I used to be somebody” and it’s kind of sad. She doesn’t mind having younger bosses, but she needs validation/reassurance that she’s a respected team member. But it gets a little tiring to coddle her all the time – and she actually won our “admin of the year” award last year because everyone felt guilty and voted for her (she’s decent at her job, but nothing special).

  5. Cambridge Comma

    It’s interesting that she is speaking as if she has been demoted. Was her previous job at a higher level?

    1. Elizabeth West

      Yes, I’m wondering about that too, or perhaps she was hoping to advance into this position. The comment about being used to the driver’s seat is what caught my attention.

      1. F.

        That was my first thought, too. My manager is about 12 years younger than I, but I do not see him as a child (I have step-children around his age) nor do I ever feel the need to point out the difference in our ages. This seems to be more about the subordinate no longer being in charge than about the age difference. It can be hard to go back to taking direction from a manager if one is used to being in charge. The subordinate employee (regardless of age) is acting in a borderline disrespectful manner. I agree that a private conversation to clear the air and establish the boundaries of the manager/employee relationship would be a good idea.

    2. Paige Turner

      I suppose it’s possible that she was laid off and had to take a pay/rank cut (which doesn’t excuse the behavior of course…).

    3. OP

      Hey OP here! Thank-you all for the laughs and thoughtful comments. To address this question specifically, this is an entire career shift for the program coordinator.

    4. OP

      She has owned her own business for the past 15 years. She was independent in her role (no staff) but certainly was at the highest level!

      1. Cambridge Comma

        Then it definitely sounds like she has a problem adjusting to that. Maybe the age thing is just a symptom.

  6. Master Bean Counter

    To me it almost seems like a brain to mouth filter problem. To be honest it sounds like her private thoughts are escaping her mouth. And those comments are probably things I would be thinking if I was being led by someone much younger than me and dealing with a new job where I wasn’t in charge anymore. The difference is I know not to let them wander out of my mouth.
    I, personally, would go with the “I’m sorry, what did you say?” tactic. Be genuine and non-judgmental when you ask this. It gives her a chance to rephrase what she just said into something that more appropriately voices her concerns. And her concerns are legitimate to her.

  7. Mockingjay

    It sounds like these were internal openings. I wonder if the Project Coordinator had applied for the director position.

    The Coordinator also seems to have a ‘yesteryear’ mindset: with X years of experience, she should (automatically?) move to the next level. I haven’t seen those kinds of jobs or careers in a long time. (I think they went out about the same time that pensions were replaced by 401Ks. Ha ha.)

    Since the company is setting up a new project/department, the Project Coordinator has a good opportunity to take up some challenges and demonstrate her strengths. That might be the focus the OP can direct her to, after or as part of the age conversation.

      1. Julia

        I’m sorry, I know we’re not supposed to comment on spelling or typos, but I just imagined a department manger and it’s hilarious. Some typos are brilliant.

    1. MK

      Maybe, but don’t underestimate how much people are indoctrinated with the idea that advanced age is something that should beget instant respect in a professional context. My own profession actually does operate on a strict seniority model, but seniority is determined by the time one enters the extremely rigorous selection process. That means that I, who entered to profession in my late ’20s, am senior to someone in their early ’40s, who entered a year later. Most people take it in their stride; after all, they could have chosen the profession sooner too and have a decade on seniority on me. But there are some who make comments similar to the OP’s employee or act condescendingly or try to lead as if their age gives them a right.

    2. Vanilla

      This was my first thought, too. It sounds to me as if the project manager is resentful that someone with less experience got “her” job.

  8. Minion

    I can understand how the older woman might feel weird. Not agreeing with her, just sympathizing a bit. My direct report is a bit older than me and sometimes I do feel a little odd giving her instruction. I’ve never mentioned that to her (nor has she mentioned it) – I think that WOULD be odd, but it still makes me feel a little weird. I guess I can blame my upbringing for it.
    And, I guess I’m super weird in some ways anyway because despite the fact that I’m in my early forties, I still feel like a kid sometimes. When I tell my manager I need a day of personal leave or that I’m leaving early for something, I always feel like a kid going to the teacher to ask if I can have a hall pass. I have to actually remind myself that I’m a grown woman and a member of senior management and I don’t need permission for the love of Pete!
    But, back on track! I think if my report mentioned our ages in that way it would make me very uncomfortable and I would want to address it if it kept up. I would probably not get too upset about it, though, if it were just mild comments but she was still doing everything I asked her and performing well. If she used that as a way to try to undermine me or made snide comments then that would require an uncomfortable conversation and as confrontation averse as I am, GOD HELP HER if she made me have that conversation!!! :)

      1. Lily Rowan

        Same, same. Who let me be in charge???

        Although on the flip side, I guess I do look young, so at work I try to make clear that I do have 20 years of experience in my field.

    1. Elizabeth West

      Ha, I know that little kid feeling. And I had a skating coach who had the issue you mention first–she said she felt strange telling me what to do since I was so much older than she. But I told her, I’m paying you to tell me what to do. Sometimes my current coach will ask me what I want to work on. Don’t ask me; you’re the boss for the next half hour! If I want to work on a program, I’ll ask you! :)

  9. Anonymous Educator

    I’ve been in multiple situations in which someone older reported to someone else younger, whether I was directly involved or not, and I’ve never heard these comments made at the workplace (say it with your friends or at home to your spouse, sure). I worked for a boss who was younger than I was. Not an issue. I’ve seen older colleagues work for younger colleagues. Not an issue. I’ve seen older Deans and Directors work for younger Heads of School. Not an issue.

    OP, Whether this is coming from a place of insecurity or some kind of passive-aggressive undermining jab at you, it has to stop, definitely.

    1. Laurel Gray

      This!!!

      I really don’t think it is necessary for the OP to come up with language to accommodate any feelings this worker has. Not OP’s problem. The comments are inappropriate. It is definitely something she should vent to friends or family, not to the OP. I don’t care if she has no filter, is embarrassed, feels the situation is unfair – again, not OP’s problem. Replace her age issue with race, gender, religion or sexual orientation and it would be no-brainer inappropriate to say in the workplace.

      1. CADMonkey007

        This is a great point, I can imagine many men over the years making comments like “Sorry, it’s new to me to have a WOMAN as a supervisor…” Yeah, not appropriate.

        So perhaps OP should approach it the same way one would handle an offhand racist or sexist comment. “Gosh, its crazy that…” “What’s crazy about it? I don’t understand what you mean.” etc.

    2. INFJ

      I’m more inclined to think the comments themselves aren’t a problem, but may become a problem if they are indicative of an attitude held by the employee that the OP isn’t competent/qualified to do her job. I don’t think the comments are that big of a deal unless the OP witnesses objectively subversive behavior from her employee.

  10. animaniactoo

    I think what’s more curious to me is that it sounds like she’s having a dual problem – she said she’s used to being in the driver’s seat – does this mean she used to have the higher rank/authority position in another company, and has accepted a lower one here?

    Is it worth talking about that separate from the age issue, and asking her how hard/long she thinks that adjustment period will be, and if there’s anything you can do to help her through it? Perhaps a question about why she applied for/accepted this position if she’s used to one with more independence/authority? A little “get-to-know-you” that might make her feel less out of place?

    Fwiw, in her first year, my dad frequently commented to me on the fact that his new principal was younger than I was and how mind-blowing that was to him in a funny and general way, but it was also really clear that he respected her and worked to support her. I don’t know if he ever mentioned it to her.

  11. RVA Cat

    I really hope I’m not the only one picturing the OP and her report as Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid in drag….

    1. Lily in NYC

      Way off-topic, but I always thought Topher Grace was going to have a huge movie career but I guess that didn’t pan out (I know he gets steady work but I thought he was going to be A list).

  12. Security SemiPro

    I think in technical fields this can be more common/less unusual because there is a respected individual contributor track, so its pretty common to be fairly far along in your career and still be part of a small team with a younger manager.

    I started as a manager with a small team of senior technical staff, I’m still younger than several of my staff. They have no interest in management though, they just want to work for a good manager who keeps the good work coming at a reasonable pace and keeps politics away from them.

    The age difference has never been a thing. They have their fields of expertise that I respect and no one expects me to duplicate and I have mine, which they respect and have no wish to duplicate.

    1. Mockingjay

      “They just want to work for a good manager who keeps the good work coming at a reasonable pace and keeps politics away from them.”

      THANK YOU.

  13. Jillian

    Is it possible you’re reading too much in to it and she’s just making small talk? I’m 57 and have kids 20 years younger; I would think nothing of saying “Hey, you’re the same age as my daughter!”. I’ve been in the workforce for 40 years and I’ve had managers and reports of all ages, levels of education and experience, and abilities and it’s never seemed at all odd for my manager to be younger. Different people have different career paths. When the manager is younger, it does seem to bother the MANAGER more than the employee, for whatever reason.

    1. Vic

      I would recommend you not say that and, like the OP, would wonder why you said it if I were your boss.

    2. Shell

      Maybe it is just small talk, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.

      I mean, if a younger coworker (peer or superior, doesn’t matter) came up to you one day and crowed “oh wow, you’re old! My parents are your age!”, wouldn’t you find it rude?

    3. SL #2

      You personally might not find it strange to report to a young manager, but when you make comments like that about age, you give off the impression that you do. And if you don’t mean it that way, think of all the other older employees in your department, at other companies, everywhere, who do use veiled remarks about age to undermine a young manager. It’s about giving off the impression that you don’t respect your manager for her skills and talent simply because she’s considerably younger than you.

    4. CADMonkey007

      I have coworkers with grandkids the same age as my daughter. We talk very cordially about them, exchange notes about their milestones and such, including grandpa joking about how nice it is he gets to hand them off at the end of the day back to their parents. But “Wow, you have a kid the same age of my grandkid!” has never been said and would be really weird if it was.

    5. SarahBee

      It’s still inapproriate as small talk, and should still be stopped. If I was your boss and you said “Hey, you’re the same age as my daughter!” to me, I’d deal with that exactly as Alison suggests here. It’s not relevant, it’s not appropriate and it doesn’t belong in the workplace.

    6. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah, I’m going to agree with others here and urge you not to say things like that. Think of it this way: what does someone say in response to that? Most people are going to smile awkwardly, at best.

      1. KR

        This is a good way of looking at it. I work with a lot of people who are older. I’m 21 and petite, which causes a lot of people to think I’m way younger than I am. My age is not that interesting to me and I really don’t have anything to say when people talk to me about the fact that I’m younger than them other than try not to look too annoyed. To everyone who is reading, please please please please stop bringing this up when you encounter people at work who are younger than you.

    7. NotASalesperson

      Having been a manager at age 23 for someone with children older than me (she was probably 50), commenting about having children my age or older than me was a way my direct report would hint that they were more experienced and should therefore have more say. Overall she was a great employee – she took initiative where it mattered, had good relationships with all of the program stakeholders, etc – but once she found out how old I was, she started arguing with my decisions more and respecting my authority less.

      As with any federally protected class, I think it’s best to avoid comments about age at work. It’s like talking about race or gender – you don’t do it at work unless there’s a problem or you’re exchanging things like anecdotes where those characteristics are relevant, and even the latter makes some people uncomfortable unless that’s the type of friendship you have.

    8. Observer

      Besides what the others have said, I think we should assume that the OP is accurate in her reporting. There is no way she “reading too much” there. It’s not just that the PM is mentioning their relative age, she’s making negative comments. A comment like “Gosh, it’s crazy to have a supervisor that is the same age as my daughter” just can’t be explained away like that.

    9. SystemsLady

      Pretty much the only context where I think that’s reasonable small talk is if you have reason to believe they might have gone to school with your daughter or something.

      I live in a small state where a lot of people go to one of the state colleges (almost all of them have specialties such that it’s not a bad idea anyway) and I’m frequently asked what year I graduated and if I know such and such person.

      That doesn’t really bother me, and in a few cases I have known the person they were talking about. Saying “oh, you’re the same age as my child! you’re so young!!!” does sometimes though, especially because I’m stuck with baby face and have a bit of a complex about ever looking childish/not professional.

      1. SystemsLady

        Before I get “you should feel thankful” comments: I’m 25 and have airplane status that frequently gets me exit row seats for free (yay!). If I dress even remotely casual while flying and don’t use my professional bag (basically any personal travel), I am asked by the flight attendant to verify if I’m 16 or older.

        1. Engineer Girl

          If it is any consolation the problem goes away around age 30. At least that’s when it happened for me.

        2. Cecily

          I’m a bike courier in my mid-twenties, and last week I got yelled at for not being in class while making a delivery to a MIDDLE SCHOOL. I had a receptionist I chat with and generally like tell me she always thinks I should be in school when I get out of the elevator, and I politely pushed back on it, and got the “you’ll be thankful” line – she’s in her sixties, for reference. I’m really sorry, but I have EVERY RIGHT to not want to be mistaken for a LITERAL TWELVE YEAR OLD.

          1. AnotherAnon

            Once when I was 21, getting some of costco’s free samples, I got asked where my parents were. The age limit for getting free samples without a parent is 12.

            I can usually take it as a compliment (regardless of how it’s meant), but every once in a while it’s so ridiculous it just ends up as a crazy story to tell. It sucks when I’m having a bad knee day, too, worrying that someone will yell at me for not giving up my seat on the bus.

    10. CM

      I think this would be fine if it comes up when you’re chatting about non-work matters. It’s not weird at all when coworkers have mentioned in passing that their kids are around the same age as me, as long as it’s in context. Otherwise, I agree it’s not OK to make unsolicited comments about other people’s age, appearance, etc.

    11. Tinker

      Hrm.

      So here’s a juxtaposition: “When the manager is younger, the age gap situation bothers them more” / “I would think nothing of drawing attention to the age gap, as the older party, and framing it in parent-child terms.” The thing about parenting relationships, I notice, is that the power dynamic of that relationship has a way of sneaking into places where it’s not so great to be — into the relationship between the parent and their own child as an adult and/or into the relationship with other people that the parent is framing (perhaps unintentionally) as “like my child”.

      One of these, for instance, is a sort of casual inattention to the consent of the child-labeled party — not overtly doing things that most people would consider flagrantly out of line, necessarily, but just not really noticing that “I know this person may not like having this done” connects to “This is a thing that I might want to avoid doing”. Because it’s subtle, it can sneak in despite one’s good intentions — a person who feels a parental impulse to grab their manager’s collar from behind to straighten it out would probably realize that the impulse should be squelched, but a person who feels an impulse to casually say “Oh, you’re the same age as my daughter” might well think nothing of it.

      It’d probably be wise to think something of it. Because the thing about being the party who is less bothered by a situation is — the other person is bothered more, and also probably notices it more, and potentially finds it more detrimental to the relationship.

      1. Three Thousand

        I agree completely, and I was going to say something like this. It may feel like you’re complimenting someone by calling them young and it’s their problem if they can’t appreciate it, but there are lots of things you can say to someone that might feel like a compliment to you but not to them. Your manager might also be physically attractive, but that doesn’t mean they need you to inform them of that at work.

  14. AJS

    I’m almost 60, and back in a hierarchical workforce after 20 years running my own business (running it into the ground, alas!) and my manager is around 30. She has more experience in my current field than I do, I recognize that, and we have no problems.

    When Patty Duke died, she was curious about why it was such an emotional touchstone, so I explained how everyone over a certain age still knows at least part of her show’s theme song by heart. She has a kid and tells me all about the problems with her school system, which I wouldn’t have known about and which interest me.

    It is a manager/ direct report situation, and most of our interaction is work-related. Each of us respects the other, and that’s what makes if work. If at times I think she’s acting like a stereotypical almost-millennial, I remind myself that there are surely times when she attributes something I’ve done to my age.

    It can work, or I may just be lucky.

    1. AJS

      And I can’t even imagine telling her that I’m old enough to be her father. I know it, and she knows it, but comments like that are both useless and by nature demeaning.

    2. Lillian McGee

      Definitely! I supervised a woman in her late 60s when I was as young as 25 and we got along swimmingly. She was post-retirement and the role was waaay below her actual skill set, but she wanted to continue working and was attracted to our mission. She was my first direct report and, not requiring much in the way of supervision, she really helped me ease into the role of manager. It was really more of a collaboration than a hierarchy but someone needed to sign her time sheets!

    3. Jillociraptor

      Your comment is a great example of how empathy and curiosity are key. You each recognize that your age contributes different lenses to your experiences, and that’s interesting as a way of getting to know each other–not as a way of boxing each other in, or as something that’s threatening.

      I work with a man who is the same age as my parents (he’s not my manager but is definitely in an informal position of authority over me), and we often talk about stuff like this (I had the same conversation about Patty Duke!). It’s always fun and pleasant because I don’t treat him like an old fart, and he doesn’t treat me as a dumb kid. We just chat, and enjoy what each other brings to the table.

      1. fposte

        I love working with people of different ages just for things like this, in fact. It’s fascinating to see what cultural touchstones of my teen years young people know about and which ones turned out to be ephemeral, and to get a read on what celebrity gossip they care about and what they don’t.

        1. Jillociraptor

          I get to do the same thing with students–I’m just far enough out of college that the experience is quite different, and I find it so interesting to hear about that!

        2. Alli525

          I honestly can’t wait until I’m older (turning 30 this year) and get to see what happens to the “greats” of my generation. Like, I hope in 30 years people are still talking about Lady Gaga. I really enjoy nostalgia I guess :)

  15. MashaKasha

    I might be overly paranoid about age discrimination, but I read the whole letter cringing and thinking, What is this woman doing, essentially painting a target on her own back!?!?! When I’m 57 and have supervisors 20 years older (which will happen in less than ten years), my strategy will be to keep my mouth shut about my or anyone else’s age and hope that, to my coworkers, I look younger than I am. I will certainly not be outing myself as the office dinosaur on a daily basis. So basically I’ll be doing the same thing I’m doing now, heh heh.

    Agree with the rest of the commenters that OP’s coworker’s comments are rude and unprofessional. 37 is not in any way a shockingly young age to “advance one’s career so quickly”. Why the coworker keeps bringing it up like it’s something out of the norm, I have no idea. It does come across as an attempt to belittle OP, whether the coworker means that or not.

    1. MashaKasha

      typo above. 20 years younger. There’s no way I will have 77 yo supervisors unless I change careers.

    2. Petronella

      +1 to this. People older than 42 or so should never be bringing up age in any shape or form in the workplace. I don’t even mention how old my kid is anymore, don’t want anyone to do the math. Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, but age discrimination is a thing and you see it once you hit a certain age. Particularly for women. “Invisible Woman” syndrome – nice when it means you no longer get harassed on the street or shadowed in stores, not so great when it means people start overlooking you and your qualifications on the job.

    3. BananaPants

      Especially with age discrimination being a problem, and with older women having a harder time finding jobs when they find themselves out of work – I can’t imagine drawing attention to the situation!

  16. Vicki

    “Good for you for advancing in your career so quickly”.

    OP – How old does she think you are? “Quick” advancement is 25, not 37.

    1. OP

      She mentioned her daughter was 27…..and that we were the “same age”. Again, well I could feel flattered. I have never been one of those “youthful” women. I feel like my looks reflect my age fairly accurately.

  17. Hiring Mgr

    I’m in my early 40s, and most of my direct reports are in their mid to late 90s…We have a great working relationship but we keep age out of the day to day conversations.

    1. MashaKasha

      I’m sorry, am I reading this right? Mid to late 90s?
      I’m hoping against hope that I can stay in the workforce that long, but… is that really possible?

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever

        I hope it involves bacon-eating, Marlboro-smoking, bourbon-drinking, ‘net-surfing, and other assorted fun vices that lead to a long, fulfilling life

  18. NicoleK

    I’ve had a handful of supervisors who were younger than me. And several direct reports that were older than me. Age was never an issue in either scenarios. It does go back to respect.

  19. Nobody

    In my experience, many people consider it a compliment to mention someone’s youth. I hear people making age-related comments to the youngest employees where I work all the time, and these comments are usually said wistfully (implying, “I wish I were still your age with my whole life ahead of me!”). It sounds like this woman may think she is paying you a compliment by noticing your youth and being impressed by your career growth, assuming she’s not showing any other signs of insubordination. If that’s the case, she’ll probably stop once she gets the picture that it’s actually making you uncomfortable.

    1. OP

      You could be right. I am generally a person who doesn’t need / want compliments. It just feels awkward for someone to go with their BRAND new supervisor. I guess I tend to have personal exchanges evolve organically in the workplace. And, if she is looking for random complements from me about age, clothes, hair, shoes (which have been other comments) she will be greatly disappointed. I am happy to provide praise and complements for work related tasks and accomplishments.

    2. Cecily

      “She’ll probably stop once she gets the picture that it’s actually making you uncomfortable”, alas, in my experience this is VERY much not the case and people will just badger you about how you should be grateful that they thought you were younger than you were. Even if they thought you were twelve when you are in fact in your twenties!

  20. stevenz

    A comment from one of those “older people.” (Ouch. That hurts.) When I first reported to someone much younger than me – 20 years – it was a jolt, but not so much because I was working for *her* but because it brought home yet again how much the world is changing. It’s easy to feel like it’s passing you by, as in all the things you could have done, can’t do again, etc etc. Those are purely personal feelings and don’t enter into a discussion with a superior.

    Also, *somebody* thought that younger person was qualified to do that job and therefore hired her with all that implies. One should respect that. One might find oneself in the same situation one day. Another factor, as people stay in the workforce longer, due to better health, more parlous financial situations, etc., this is happening a lot.

    Finally, something that may be bothering this older lady is that she is feeling unneeded having been moved out of her job by a younger person. When that happens, one can be made to feel like one’s skills aren’t being used as well as they once were. That’s pretty humiliating and isn’t necessary. The superior may not want to just correct her on the age related comments but might want to provide some reassurance of the person’s value and follow that up with actions.

  21. AgentScully

    I once supervised an employee with this exact issue. No matter what I did to address the situation, she continually brought up our age difference. She insisted I was a millennial like her daughters despite me not being a millennial and being 10+ years older than her daughters….even asked me to send her to a special “Communicating with Millenials” training (she couldn’t justify it, there was no way was sending her.) At one point she told me she felt I needed to treat her with more respect than I gave other staff because she was old enough to be my mother. I had to explain to her all of the reasons that would be inappropriate. She really was clueless. On top of that, she was a poor performer. It took me much too long to be given the support I needed from HR and upper management to take any real action regarding any of these issues as this employer had a lackluster system in place for employee coaching/corrective action. After much documentation, many meetings (my favorite was the one where her refusal to follow instructions was being addressed and she was shouting “I am not insubordinate!” in my face while banging on the table in front of her). The employee ended up resigning on day 30 of her final 30-day improvement plan which prevented me having to complete the termination process. If I had to do it all over (ugh, NIGHTMARE even thinking about that!) I would have documented every conversation we had about the age issue from day 1. Any direct conversation about the issue would have been immediately followed by an email recapping the conversation. “Penelope, As we discussed this afternoon, your focus should be your work. Conversations about my age in relation to my position as your supervisor are not relevant to any of the business conduct.” or something to that effect. Copy HR on it & keep a running document to track any issues. Start documenting! Don’t let her continue to make this an issue, make it very clear it is not appropriate.

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