Commentary: It’s not okay to say ‘OK boomer’

EUGENE, Oregon: The phrase “OK boomer” has become a catch-all put-down that Generation Zers and young millennials have been using to dismiss retrograde arguments made by baby boomers, the generation who are currently 55 to 73 years old.

Though it originated online and primarily is fueling memes, Twitter feuds and a flurry of commentary, it has begun migrating to real life.

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Earlier this month, a New Zealand lawmaker lobbed the insult at an older legislator who had dismissed her argument about climate change.

As the term enters our everyday vocabulary, HR professionals and employment law specialists like me now face the age-old question: What happens if people start saying “OK boomer” at work?

DISCRIMINATION?

A lot of the internet fights over “OK boomer” revolve around whether the phrase is offensive or not. But when youre talking about the workplace, offensiveness is not the primary problem. The bigger issue is that the insult is age-related.

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Comments that relate to a workers age are a problem because older workers often face negative employment decisions, like a layoff or being passed over for promotion.

READ: Commentary: Watch for casual ageism and other signs of caustic attitudes about older workers

The only way to tell whether a decision like that is tainted by age discrimination is the surrounding context: Comments and behaviour by managers and coworkers.

If a manager said “OK boomer” to an older workers presentation at a meeting, that would make management seem biased. Even if that manager simply tolerated a joke made by someone else, it would suggest the boss was in on it.

Companies also risk age-based harassment claims. Saying “OK boomer” one time does not legally qualify as harassing behaviour.

But frequent comments about someones age – for example, calling a colleague “old” and “slow”, “old fart” or even “pops” – can become harassment over time.

GEN X-ERS ARE COVERED TOO

And it doesnt matter if the target isnt even a boomer.

Gen Xers were born around 1965 to 1979. That makes them older than 40 and covered by federal age discrimination law.

Yes, I get that the comment is a retort to “unwoke” elders who cannot be reasoned with. The problem is that the phrase is intended as a put-down that is based, at least partly, on age. If you say it at work, youre essentially saying: “Youre old and therefore irrelevant.”

READ: Commentary: Seniors do well at their jobs yet ageist myths and negative stereotypes persist

Lumping Gen Xers into a category with even older workers doesnt make it better. Either way, you are commenting on their age.

FUNNY OR NOT?

I recently watched some of the “OK boomer” TikTok compilations.

A lot of them were quite funny, like the hairdresser imitating a customer who criticized her tattoos as unprofessional. She responded, “OK boomer,” while appearing to lop off a huge swath of the customers hair.

When I was an employment lawyer, I heard tons of hilarious stories of things people said in the workplace. But thats the point: The story ended with a lawyer on the other end of the phone.

One of the most famous age-discrimination cases – which made its way all the way up to the US Supreme Court – involved a manager who described an employee as “so old he must have come over on the Mayflower.”

In other words, “it was just a joke” is an awful legal defence.

A senior on her way to work. (Photo: Unsplash)

TIT FOR TAT

To millennials who have suffered through years of being called “snowflakes” by Read More – Source