Alternet - November 30, 2019
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 of Americans 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. 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?
Evidence of discrimination
A lot of the internet fights over “OK boomer” revolve around whether the phrase is offensive or not. But when you’re talking about the workplace, offensiveness is not the primary problem. The bigger issue is that the insult is age-related.
Workers aged 40 and older are protected by a federal statute called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits harassment and discrimination on the basis of age.
Comments that relate to a worker’s age are a problem because older workers often face negative employment decisions, like a layoff or being passed over for promotion. The only way to tell whether a decision like that is tainted by age discrimination is the surrounding context: comments and behavior by managers and coworkers.
If a manager said “OK boomer” to an older worker’s 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 behavior. But frequent comments about someone’s age – for example, calling a colleague “old” and “slow”, “old fart” or even “pops” – can become harassment over time.
Gen Xers are covered too
And it doesn’t matter if the target isn’t even a boomer.