‘OK Boomer’ and ‘Lazy Millennial’ Shouldn’t Be Ignored

By Cristina Rouvalis February 11, 2020
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multigenerational group discussion

​Generational jabs fly in both directions. A 60-year-old office worker dismisses the Millennial in the next cubicle as lazy or entitled. The junior employee rolls her eyes in response with a sarcastic "OK Boomer." 

Though "OK Boomer" has become a popular punchline, particularly in social media posts, it's also the kind of age-related putdown that can create tension and real problems in workplaces that are dealing with intergenerational conflict.

" 'OK Boomer' is a pivotal moment. It's a giant tell," said Paul Rupert, a Maryland-based workplace consultant and founder of Respectful Exits, an organization advocating for the age-inclusive redesign of work and the retirement system. "You can either perpetuate your age-exclusive behavior, or you can call it out and say, 'We are going past this type of thinking.' Companies that do that will have a competitive edge."

In extreme cases, ageist putdowns might be used as evidence in an age-discrimination lawsuit or of a pattern of harassment, said Scott Warrick, a Columbus, Ohio-based employment attorney and author of Solve Employee Problems Before They Start (SHRM, 2019).

"Somebody being treated differently because of age—whether it is ignoring or ostracizing or saying 'OK Boomer'—may create an environment so hostile that a person can't function," he said. "A toxic culture could be used as part of an age-discrimination case." The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act bars employers from discriminating against workers 40 and older. 

"Never under any circumstances use a protected class as a slur," Warrick advises company leaders. "If you think you are going to, take your tongue and bite it. Those funny little comments about 'old farts'? You can't do that anymore."

Rupert also advises CEOs and company managers to make it clear that they will not tolerate any age-related jabs at Boomers, Millennials or any other generation of workers. "You can have a very clear statement: 'We don't tolerate this here. This is not Twitter land. We will not use those terms inside the office.' "

More Older Workers on the Job

The issue of intergenerational tiffs will become more relevant as the number of people age 55 and older in the workplace continues to grow—from 35.7 million in 2016 to 42.1 million in 2026, according to projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

To foster good employee relations, Stephanie Weinstein, a Pittsburgh-based partner in law firm Marcus & Shapira's labor and employment law group, includes age as one element of the diversity training programs she conducts with employers. In addition to sensitizing employers to issues of race, gender and disability, she might do a role-playing exercise to highlight the kind of stereotypical age-related comments to avoid. "You might bring to light some harsh terms being thrown around—'OK Boomer' as the counterpart of 'lazy Millennial'—and explore how they make people feel. We don't want to throw those terms around and perpetuate stereotypes that can be harmful." Even if an employee says it's just a joke, the recipient may not take it that way.

As part of his conflict resolution training, Warrick encourages people of different generations who clash at work to talk out disagreements and be empathetic listeners by putting themselves in the other person's position. "If I am 69 and I'm in conflict with someone in Generation Z or Generation Y, I have to first understand them and be understood," he explained.

When Warrick mediates disputes, he encourages people who disagree to repeat back what the other person has said. Then he encourages people to reframe the argument as "I see where you are coming from, but what about this point?"

Employment attorneys also discuss age in implicit bias training, which lets people examine prejudices they may not even realize they hold. Just as a person might have a bias about someone of a different ethnicity or race, he or she also might unfairly judge a younger co-worker as fitting into all the negative stereotypes about Millennials.

"Implicit bias is subconscious, but it comes out," Warrick said. "Our brain is hardwired to not trust anyone who is different. But you can overcome that."

Burden of Proof Is on Employee

Age-discrimination cases can be difficult for employees to win in court because of the high burden of proof. A 2009 Supreme Court ruling placed the burden on the employee to show that age was the "but for" cause of an adverse employment action such as a termination or being passed up for a promotion. (In other words, had the employee not been over age 40, he would not have been fired.) A case before the high court now digs deeper into that burden of proof.

Still, it would be a mistake for employers to write off the issue simply because they may prevail in court. People don't sue because they have a good case, Warrick said. They sue because they feel dehumanized and angry—which is why training employees about age sensitivity is much more productive than defending a lawsuit.

"My goal for my clients is not to get sued," Warrick said. "Most people on the jury are over 40. A lawsuit is terrible publicity. Even if you do get sued and win, the expense would put many of my clients out of business."

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.


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