5 Things Younger Leaders Can’t Stand About Older Leaders

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As you may have noticed, there’s a bit of tension in the workplace and in culture these days.

Younger leaders are complaining (a lot) about older leaders (who are often their bosses).

Older leaders are complaining (a lot) about younger leaders.

The ‘Okay, Boomer’ moment happening in our culture right now is just the tip of the iceberg, but it crystallizes how young leaders are feeling about older leaders.

I’m one of those older leaders. As a Gen X’er myself, I’ve been at countless breakfasts and meetings with people my age or older who, about a decade ago, started complaining about younger leaders.

More recently, I’ve heard an equal number of younger leaders (the bulk of my readers are leaders under the age of 40) complain about their bosses and how frustrated they are with their older co-workers.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that, as revealed by a Gallup study, 70% of US employees are disengaged at work.

So, I decided to do a survey to get more feedback on what’s really going on.

 According to the recent Gallup study, 70% of US employees are disengaged at work. Click To Tweet

I Surveyed Over 900 Leaders

I recently surveyed over 900 leaders about their experiences with the opposite generations at work. Rather than trying to get statistics, I solicited feedback. Attitudes. Stories. Perspectives.

And I did get an earful from all sides.

I heard from CEOs, entrepreneurs, engineers, pastors, lawyers, office managers, teachers, accountants, project managers, church staff, EAs, and many other leaders.

I asked younger leaders (Gen Z and Millennials) to tell me what frustrates them about older leaders (Gen X and Boomers) and older leaders to tell me what frustrates them about younger leaders (that post comes out next in this series).

To get us started, I asked Millennials and Gen Z respondents to complete this sentence:

My biggest complaint about older leaders at work is…

Well, they told me. Wow.

I mean, I knew anecdotally from conversations with leaders that there were challenges. I just had no idea the animosity and frustration ran so deep.

So what’s going on?

Honestly, some of these criticisms hurt. But if you ignore feedback that hurts, you’ll stop growing. Leaders, being willing to hear what’s wrong is a first step toward making things right.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding, tension, and miscommunication in the workplace. I’ll share some strategies at the end of this post to handle that.

Ready to hear the complaints?

Brace yourself. Here we go…

Leaders, being willing to hear what's wrong is a first step toward making things right.  Click To Tweet

#1 They’re Not Open to Change 

When you read through the hundreds of responses I got from younger leaders about their bosses, the refrain was almost unanimous.

The #1 complaint about older leaders by younger leaders (by FAR) is that older leaders aren’t open to change.

Here are just a smattering of direct quotes from  young leaders about their bosses and older co-workers:

  • Stuck in their ways with tons of blind spots and no willingness to listen or learn. Which breeds no hope for change.
  • Not willing to let go of the way things were done 30 years ago, let alone 10.
  • Most of them want to do it the way it has always been done. I actually heard that from them.
  • They want everything done the way they did it in the 80s and 90s while saying they want innovation and freshness.
  • They have so much history behind them, they don’t want to try something because they did before, and it didn’t work.
  • Living in the past, as if it were better than the future possibilities.
  • Change is a dirty word for older leaders.
The #1 complaint about older leaders by younger leaders is that older leaders aren't open to change.  Click To Tweet

To a certain extent, I get it. Older leaders bring a lot of experience and wisdom to the table.

At least I hope I do as a 50+ leader myself. So it’s easy to want to think we know what someone 20 or 30 years our junior doesn’t.

But, you have to admit, leaders…things are changing quickly.

Two quick realities about change.

First, realize the past has a nostalgia the future never does. You remember the good parts of the past but tend to minimize the bad parts or how challenging it was.

Change takes as much courage now as it did then. Change may have been easier because you were younger, but it’s just as important now as it was when you were 23. Maybe even more so. Why?

Because the gap between how quickly you change and how quickly things change is called irrelevance. And things just keep changing faster and faster every year.

Ignore that, and you lose out on more than you think.

Guess what young leaders who see older leaders as irrelevant tend to do? They leave.

Which explains a lot of what’s happening these days. If you won’t change, young leaders will find someone who will. Or they’ll simply launch their own thing.

If you won't change, young leaders will find someone who will. Or they'll simply launch their own thing. Click To Tweet

#2 Older Leaders Are Inflexible

Again and again, young leaders complained about how inflexible their bosses and older colleagues were. Here are some direct quotes from young leaders:

  • Set in their methods, not flexible in how work gets done.
  • They refuse to let go of their power/authority/decision-making rights.
  • On the occasion that they do give up their rights, they are quick to take them back when things don’t go exactly the way they wanted.
  • Not forward thinking, not engaging the next generation, not adventurous.
  • Inability to be flexible and understand that a flex schedule, working from home, and having informal meetings to discuss ideas are all a benefit to productive work, and that doesn’t mean that I’m not a hard worker or slacking off.

While there’s a lot in these comments, read that last comment again.

There’s a rising tide of young leaders who want a flexible workplace.

For so many reasons, 8-5 doesn’t work anymore in an era of wifi, cloud-based computing and smartphones. In an age where you don’t have to go to the office because the office goes to you, way too many leaders are still living like it’s 1997.

Why do you need to be in at 8 a.m. when there’s no need to be?

A virtual office or team may not be right for you, but just know this: The future workplace is a flexible workplace.

If you don’t flex your methods, you’ll sacrifice your mission.

The future workplace is a flexible workplace. If you don't flex your methods, you'll sacrifice your mission. Click To Tweet

#3 They Think They Know Everything

This was a surprising finding on both sides. Young leaders think older leaders are arrogant. Older leaders think young leaders are full of themselves (more on that in the next post).

Here’s what young leaders wrote about older leaders:

  • Their way is the ONLY way.
  • They rarely understand what I’m saying.
  • A lack of curiosity — they’ve figured a lot out already.
  • They mention my age a ton. They’ll make off-handed comments about me being young. Though they have more experience than I do, they think they know more about social media than I do. There’s not an acknowledgment of areas where I have expertise where they don’t.
  • They don’t ask good questions or hear all the voices in the room.

Pride is a problem for so many of us in leadership.

Note to self: Older leaders, if you think you know all the answers, don’t be surprised if the next generation stops asking questions and simply leaves.

And correct. That’s what’s already happening. They’re leaving.

Older leaders, if you think you know all the answers, don't be surprised if the next generation stops asking questions and simply leaves.  Click To Tweet

#4. Too Many Rules

Ah, rules. Chances are you didn’t like them when you were a young leader.

The next generation feels the same way.

Here’s what young leaders said about their bosses:

  • They’re more concerned with policy than people.
  • They are hesitant to make changes and try out new ideas. They are led more by policy and procedure than by passion.
  • Develops and mandates policy to manage exceptions.
  • Their rigidness on older rules. (i.e. Tattoos in the workplace).

I’m not against all rules or guidelines. You need to have a few parameters.

But here’s what’s true: Rules are often a substitute for real leadership and open conversations. They’re also a substitute for trust.

Rules are often a substitute for real leadership and open conversations. They're also a substitute for trust.  Click To Tweet

More and more organizations are moving to flex hours, flexible holidays (pick your own quantity of vacation and days off), and outcomes-based leadership. In other words, they’re dropping old rules.

Regardless of where you land on that (I keep rules to an absolute minimum, or have none), just know that a high-rules organization is usually a low-trust organization.

And a high-trust workplace is a healthy workplace.

A high-rules organization is usually a low-trust organization.  Click To Tweet

#5 Too Slow

A final complaint about older leaders is that older leaders are too slow. Again, some direct feedback from younger leaders:

  • They are slow.  Slow to change. Slow to adopt new technology.

They are slow to make decisions.

  • Always feeling like older leaders are moving (not literally physically moving) too slow, and that younger leaders are expected to slow down to match them.

If you’re worried about being too slow as a leader, surround yourself with younger leaders and give them permission to lead and experiment.

The best older leaders don’t restrain the next generation, they release them.

The best older leaders don't restrain the next generation, they release them. Click To Tweet

What Should You Do About This?

I am a fan of all four generations currently in the workplace. This is far more fixable than you think.

As you’ll see in the next post, older leaders complain that younger leaders are lazy, entitled, and think they know everything.

Here’s what’s true: So much of the misunderstanding between the generations in the workplace is about how we worknot whether we work.  The solution is not to clean house and get rid of older leaders, or frustrate younger leaders so badly they leave or start their own thing (which more and more are doing, by the way).

I’ll be sharing a lot of new content on how to lead and manage better in your company, church or organization over the next few weeks.

By the way, I’m not letting younger leaders off the hook either: Here are 5 things older leaders can’t stand about younger leaders.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.