How to Relate to Your Co-workers When They’re All Younger Than You

Have you ever found yourself secretly checking or Google to decipher an acronym your boss used? Or been surprised by a colleague’s knowledge of the movie Cruel Intentions—only to discover they went to the “20th anniversary” showing of a movie you saw the day it originally came out?

The workplace has fundamentally changed over the past decade. According to a 2018 analysis by Pew Research Center, 35% of the labor force is comprised of Millennials, making it the largest generation in the U.S. workplace—and this number is only continuing to grow. Not to mention the fact that Generation Z is also now entering the workforce in big numbers. So if you’re in Generation X or older, chances are you’ll soon be surrounded by younger co-workers—if you’re not already. You may even work forsomeone who’s younger than you.

How can you handle this dynamic? Here are some tips to help you not only survive but thrive in an environment where your peers and leaders could be (much) younger than you.

1. Address Communication Differences

I love email, and I’m guessing my fellow Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers agree. But if you work with a younger peer, you may also find yourself being contacted via an emoji-laden text or asked to pivot your project communication to Slack.

Turns out that 80% of today’s workers say the primary difference between generations in the workplace is communication styles—and if you’re the only one clinging to your inbox, you might be the one who needs to change.

If your manager hasn’t set a preferred mode of communication, this gap can cause unnecessary inefficiencies and miscommunication issues. So now’s the time to ask and address it—and then adapt. I like to suggest that people initiate a “style conversation,” an idea I attribute to Michael Watkins and his book The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter. He suggests querying your boss on topics like what form of communication they prefer for routine matters—such as face-to-face, phone, or email—how often they want project updates, and if they prefer a summary of a situation or a lot of background.

2. Welcome a Spirit of Learning

I find that most people in my generation are adept at learning new skills—from how to turn on their lights with an app to how to start a Twitter chat. But if you’ve decided that you’re content with your skills the way they are, you may be left behind; forward-thinking professionals have already learned the importance of becoming “lifelong learners.”

For my book, The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace, I spoke with Emma Lee Hartle, a Baby Boomer community college employee who had recently changed functions. She credits her career longevity to her growth mindset and willingness to reskill: At the age of 54, she was the only one in her department who sought training and received new certifications for resume writing and coaching.

“I’d been teaching this stuff for decades, but things change,” Hartle says. “We are not using typewriters or requiring skirt suits anymore, and LinkedIn is essential for our students now. You have to have a willingness to keep learning.”

That might manifest itself by taking an online course in something you’d like to know more about, or raising your hand to attend an industry conference and bring back best practices to share with the team. Or it might involve regularly reading new business books, or frequently tuning into podcasts covering issues relevant to your job or organization.

3. Embrace “Reverse Mentoring”

For years, reverse mentoring was shorthand for teaching old fogeys how to use “the Facebook.” But in the workplace it can take on so many other forms, and it’s worth considering even if your tech skills are on point.

Be open to learning more about your younger peers’ strategies for getting to inbox zero or using apps to organize their to-do lists. Who knows, you might actually pick up something new and insightful from an unexpected source. (Remember what I said about welcoming a spirit of learning? This is one great example of that.)

One Gen X-er told me he asks his younger colleagues to put a new app on his phone each week because he wants to use what they’re using—and by doing so he has discovered new ways to do everyday tasks, like scanning documents on the go and organizing his expense account. Reverse mentoring can be particularly valuable if you’re in an industry with customers in a younger demographic because it can help you literally learn to speak their language.

4. Brush Up on What’s Hot

If you’re not sure which Kardashian is the beauty mogul or what the heck a TikTok is, you’re certainly not alone. After all, these days cultural references come and go quicker than you can say “cultural reference.”

But knowing this stuff and tuning into current trends doesn’t hurt, either. This isn’t to say you have to soak up any and every bit of pop culture in order to succeed at work—rather, it’s about finding ways to better relate to and bond with your co-workers.

One caveat: Remember that using language that doesn’t feel comfortable to you, like asking a colleague or client to “slide into your DMs” (hint: that’s not what it’s meant for) can make you look the opposite of in touch. When in doubt, opt for not saying anything.

The same goes for cultural references that could actively “date” you. When I recently gave a speech at a college in upstate New York, I made a feeble attempt to bond with a student wearing a New York Mets shirt. “Hey, you’re a Mets fan? I actually went to the ’86 World Series!” I exclaimed. He smiled uncomfortably and said, “Oh. That’s the year I was born.” Lesson learned: Next time I’ll just say “I love the Mets, too.” Nothing wrong with leaving it at that!

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