Leadership   //   July 31, 2023

How Gen Z bosses handle age bias at work

There’s one phrase every Gen Z boss has likely heard in their career: Can I speak to whoever you report to?

Looking your age (or younger) doesn’t help either. And older professionals will often make assumptions based on that: ‘Surely this baby-faced youth doesn’t have the authority or experience to make the decision here?’

As such, being in a senior role managing others while in your early 20s can be extra tough. But like many generic, generational observations, this age bias can cloud the reality. 

There are Gen Zers who have either quickly risen to the ranks, or have founded entire companies themselves, and are running operations smoothly. These young workers are adaptable and resilient, but are still judged by their age by people who measure professional credibility by length of time served in an industry.

Naturally, the more years of experience a person has under their belt, along with mistakes they’ve learned from, challenges they’ve figured out, teams they’ve led, makes them a more seasoned leader. But Gen Z also bring a fresh point of view. And like most work-related needs, balance and diversity of age ranges — therefore outlooks — is usually best.

So why do some people from older generations have difficulty taking their opinion seriously in the workplace? 

Clayton Taylor, CEO of private security company ESP Pros, grew the company from eight employees in April 2021 to 130 employees today. He’s 27-years-old, putting him at the older end of the Gen Z scale (which is anyone born between 1997 and 2021), but manages employees that range from being Vietnam war veterans to recent college grads.

“It kind of became a ripple effect where once I got the first older person into the company, and they saw my credibility, more old timers started to buy in,” said Taylor. 

People criticized him and thought at first that maybe it wasn’t a real company and operation, but more just a kid trying something out. He set out to prove that stigma wrong. “Now it’s like we get these 50-year-olds who come in and tell us about how it’s the greatest company that they’ve worked for,” said Taylor.

Imposter syndrome roars

He’s the youngest C-suite executive in the room – the next youngest is 40-years-old. That’s where the imposter syndrome can start to kick in.

“They’re looking at me for guidance and direction, when typically in a non-business setting, I’d be looking to somebody older than me and saying ‘hey, how should I do this?’” said Taylor. “It’s having that confidence to say ‘nope, this is the plan.’ It’s really helped me to interact with those people.”

“It’s having that confidence to say ‘nope, this is the plan.’"
Clayton Taylor, CEO of private security company ESP Pros.

But that didn’t come easy. He’s had to actively work on gaining that respect and authority, he added.

It’s a similar story for Morgan Sabrina, a 24-year-old director at PR agency Society22 who oversees a mix of 10 full-time and contracted employees.

“When I first started moving into more of a management role, I felt uncomfortable with it at first,” said Sabrina. ”You go through school your entire life being told ‘you need to respect someone older than you regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they are.’ When I first got into this management role, that was a hurdle for me.”

New customers, clients express concerns

Thankfully, most of Sabrina’s internal work peers respect her expertise. But Taylor and Sabrina both find their ages can still present challenges when working with new clients or customers. 

“I was working with a new client and they flew in one of their executives from the EU [European Union],” said Taylor. “We met at a bar and he walks in and before I could even introduce myself, he looks around and says ‘are you old enough to even be in here?’ It was an ‘oh, here we go’ kind of thing.”

It’s the same for Sabrina on Zoom calls. “I’ve even had a couple of times of having someone say ‘do you have someone who’s more executive on your team that can advise or double check what you’re saying is accurate or that they agree with it?’,” she said.

When that happens, Taylor tries to “take a step back, smile, and keep it rolling.” But it’s more work to prove that person can trust you. Sabrina leans into her authenticity, a key characteristic of Gen Zers, and informs people about her background and reminds them she’s worked in the industry for four years. If that doesn’t work, she will tell them: “I work with huge brands like Red Bull and Nike. If they’re trusting me, you can trust me on your account too.”

“I’ve even had a couple of times of having someone say ‘do you have someone who’s more executive on your team that can advise or double check what you’re saying is accurate or that they agree with it.’”
Morgan Sabrina, director at PR agency Society22.

It’s a clear trend among Gen Z bosses. Travis Chen, 24-year-old co-founder of SoundMind, a mental health platform providing personalized music therapy, which has 15 employees, has heard similar comments.

“I was just on a Zoom call the other day with 30 different school counselors,” said Chen. “The superintendent of the school district came in and interrupted the entire presentation and asked who the founder was and where my manager was. I said ‘I’m actually one of the founders here.’ He walked out of the room. There are still instances where there is that loss of trust and credibility, but we work to overcome that.”

Multi-generational understanding

Aside from client age biases, Chen also worries about addressing situations that he has not yet experienced himself. For example, being a working parent. 

“There was a member of our team in their late 30s and in the summer months the kids are home from school,” said Chen. “I noticed there was a decrease in productivity and during our quarterly performance review I had to really navigate how to put myself in their shoes and phrase it in a way where they’re receptive to figuring out ways to increase their performance.”

However, Gen Z is entering the workforce with an empathetic mindset, maybe even more so than generations that came before them because of the push for better work-life balance. But ultimately, the antidote most challenges, including age bias, is strong communication.

“Communication skills will allow you to communicate effectively with all of the generations, regardless of any other factors,” said Sabrina. “It will help in having those older generations respect you more if those communication skills are solid. That’s my biggest recommendation.”