I walked in tentatively, praying that my work outfit didn’t scream, “I don’t belong here.” As the receptionist gave me the grand tour, I quickly realized it wasn’t the outfit that made me stand out.
It was my age.
I was the youngest person in the office…and not by a small margin. Everyone around me was at least a decade older.
In our Monday morning meeting, I was too scared to speak up for fear of sounding stupid. I couldn’t keep up with the jokes at lunch, and my colleagues and I didn’t share any common interests we could bond over.
“I’ll never fit in,” I kept telling myself over and over again that first week.
The good news is that after a few weeks, I found my feet. But it wasn’t without a few quips from my coworkers about my age (“you wouldn’t know, you’re just a baby!”) and some serious self-doubt.
All that to say, being the youngest person at work is hard
We learn a lot of things at school, from trigonometry to how to write essays on a couple of hours of sleep. But one of the things that college doesn’t prepare us for is how to navigate a professional environment with people who are older than us—sometimes much, much older.
It doesn’t seem like much on the surface. After all, age doesn’t matter, right?
Yet these age and generational differences become really obvious as you navigate the hurdles of your job.
You feel left out when your colleagues talk about all of their career experiences or vacations with kids. Especially when your last job was at your college cafe, and your last family vacation was with your parents.
You feel intimidated when your title starts with “Junior” while theirs are fancy roles like “Senior Manager” or “Head of Purchasing.”
You’re normally an outspoken person, but you’re too scared to speak up in meetings because you think everyone else knows more than you.
Or maybe your confidence takes a hit when someone comments on the fact that they started their first job before you were even born.
It’s tough—really tough. You feel out of place. People don’t take you seriously. You’re still learning while trying to prove yourself. And imposter syndrome is very, very real.
But don’t worry. Despite how it feels, you’re not alone. In fact, your age is actually an advantage, provided you play your cards right. These tips will help you navigate the ins and outs of age differences with confidence when you’re the youngest employee in the office.
It’s tempting to immediately want to speak up in meetings and make your voice heard. However, if you jump in too quickly, you may find that a lot of your comments miss the mark.
Rather than charge headfirst into your job, start by listening and observing the dynamic at work. Ask yourself questions like:
How do people communicate in person and via email? Is it a formal work environment, or is everyone more relaxed?
What are the roles of the colleagues I’ll be working with, and how do they interact with one another?
How does my role fit into the broader picture of the company?
What are thecompany values and beliefs, and how do these play out in day-to-day work?
What procedures are in place, and why are they important?
What are the biggest challenges within the company, at a broader level and a team level?
One of the best tools I wish I had discovered earlier in my career is the stakeholder analysis matrix. It sounds a bit stuffy, but this type of grid is really helpful if you’re trying to map out how different people within the organization work together and how to navigate your relationships with each of them:
This piece of advice doesn’t just apply to your first job either. Time and time again, you’ll find that by observing first and then speaking later, you’ll make more thoughtful comments and provide genuine value that your colleagues will actually appreciate.
Do your job
When you’re just starting out in your career, you’re hungry to show what you can do. You want to prove yourself to your boss and demonstrate that you’re committed to the job.
You say yes to a volunteer project. You take on extra responsibilities from the co-worker who’s just resigned. You even offer to organize the office Christmas party. Soon, your to-do list is ten pages long, and you’re struggling to complete the tasks from your regular day job.
Remember: you were hired to do a job with clear responsibilities. Focus on doing those tasks well first before you start taking on extra things in and around the office.
Learn to cope with the dreaded imposter syndrome
Landing a new job should be a great confidence booster, particularly after you’ve hustled hard all through college and made it this far.
Despite this, when you get into the office, you find yourself feeling inadequate and insecure—even though you were selected because you were the best for the job.
In other words, you’re experiencing imposter syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.
Imposter syndrome is demoralizing and crippling. If left unchecked, it can hold you back and damage both your professional growth and self-confidence.
So how do you cope with imposter syndrome when you feel like everyone in the office is more accomplished than you are and that you “just got lucky” to get where you did?
First, learn to recognize the signs. Imposter syndrome might manifest itself as negative thoughts that you’re not good enough, high standards that are impossible to meet, or not taking action because you’re scared of failure.
Once you do identify these thoughts, try to flip the script and change the way you speak to yourself.
For example, if you start telling yourself that you’re a failure and you just got lucky, challenge that by asking yourself what you DID do to get to where you are today. You might have worked hard, pushed yourself out of your comfort zone, or prepared to ace the interview. Use this as a positive affirmation: “I worked hard to get to where I am, and I will continue to work hard.”
As you progress through your job, keep track of your wins and refer back to them any time you feel like an imposter at work. These successes are concrete pieces of evidence that you are, believe it or not, killing it at work.
Don’t be afraid to talk about it either. Voicing your concerns to your peers or your manager can often help dispel those negative thoughts and give you the reality check that you do, in fact, deserve your role.
Dress to impress (your colleagues)
What you wear has a big impact on how others perceive you in the workplace—this evenincludes your age. Dressing inappropriately might exacerbate the age gap or even lead to people not taking you seriously at work.
Each office has a different dress code, whether spoken or unspoken. When you go into the office for an interview, take a look around and observe how other employees are dressed. Do they wear more formal attire or casual? Try to remember a few different outfit combinations and use these to plan out your work wardrobe.
If you’re in doubt on your first day, dress conservatively. You can always adjust after your first few days.
Don’t forget: people notice work attire on Zoom too! Make an effort to dress the same way you would in the office, even if it is more comfortable to throw on sweats instead.
Actively ask for feedback
When you’re at school or college, there are clear guidelines on when and how you receive feedback.
In the office, that stuff goes straight out the window.
People are often too busy and preoccupied with their daily work to give feedback unless it’s solicited OR it’s about something that directly affects their day-to-day work. If you want feedback to improve, you’re going to have to ask for it.
Set aside time with your manager to specifically talk about your performance and ask for any areas of improvement. The best way to do this is to send an email ahead of time with the points you want to discuss, so they have time to prepare. When you do receive constructive criticism, take it in stride. Ask for examples if you’re not sure what they’re talking about, then actively make a point to improve upon these. Do this enough, and you’ll find yourself quickly growing in your career and earning the respect of your older peers.
The right mentor will allow you to learn from their mistakes, keep you accountable, and empower you to navigate your chosen profession with confidence. They also provide a glimpse into what success could look like in the future and give you something to work towards.
When you’re looking for a mentor, don’t just find the person who’s a couple of steps up the career ladder. Take time to evaluate what you’re looking for:
What skills do you want to learn? What do you wish you understood better? Where do you want your career to be in five years time, and who do you admire that could help you get there?
When you have these in mind, you can start looking for people who are doing exactly what you want to do or that have had a successful career path that you admire. Think about role models you have in your workplace, connect via LinkedIn or Twitter, or sign up for a mentoring program in your area.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to have the same mentor throughout your entire career. Your needs evolve as you move through different stages, and your mentors can too.
Pick something, then make yourself indispensable
One of the best things I ever did in my first job was show that I was good with Photoshop.
I might not have been the one with the most experience. However, if anyone needed help with editing a picture, they knew who to go to. And when they did, I was there and ready to help. Over time, this allowed me to build up a rapport with my colleagues and add value to the team in a way that nobody else did.
Think about your unique strengths and how they can help add value to your colleagues. You might be extremely savvy with Excel, good with video editing, or know how to create social posts that strike a chord with followers. Lean into these skills and use them as a way to set yourself apart from others and ingrain yourself as an integral part of the team.
Know where to draw the line
It’s okay to be the youngest person in the office and occasionally be the target of a joke. It’s not okay for colleagues or higher-ups to disrespect you or discriminate against you because of your age.
If you’re concerned about age-ist comments or feel like your colleagues aren’t taking you seriously, speak to a trusted colleague or friend first. This is a much-needed reality check to see if the behavior is serious or if you’re taking things too much to heart.
Still feel uncomfortable about it after this conversation? It’s time to talk to your HR team or your manager. During the conversation, list out all the facts, so the conversation doesn’t get emotionally charged, and make sure to specify that you’re looking for a confidential discussion that doesn’t leave those four walls.
The same goes if you flip the scenario. While it’s fine to make an age joke every now and then, comparing older colleagues to your parents won’t go down well, as one Redditor found out:
Above all else, never doubt yourself
You got the job for a reason and you deserve to be there. While being the youngest in the office can be tough to start out with, it’s not going to be this way forever! Soon you’ll be taking your place among the more senior ranks—and someone younger than you will come in and take your place.
A final word of advice: remember that your age isn’t a disadvantage. You bring a fresh perspective that’s invaluable to the company, and you’re not conditioned to do things the way they’ve “always been done.” Play your cards right, and your age won’t matter. In fact, it might even become your biggest strength at work.