Beware of Workplace Ageism Claims Stemming from ‘OK, Boomer’

Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP November 20, 2019

If you've logged into your social media accounts recently, you've probably seen the memes and hashtags centered on an apparent generational dispute fueled by dismissive comments, such as "OK, boomer" and "OK, millennial." So what happens if the rhetoric finds its way into your workplace?

Even if the phrase "OK, boomer" isn't meant to be insulting, it is targeted at members of the Baby Boomer generation who are currently around ages 55 to 75. Managers need to be aware that the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers age 40 and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation and other employment decisions. The ADEA covers employers with at least 20 employees, and similar state laws may apply to smaller businesses and younger workers. 

We've rounded up articles and resources from SHRM Online and other trusted media outlets on this topic.

What Does It Mean?

"OK, boomer" is an expression that some millennials (who are in their twenties and thirties) and members of Generation Z (who are in their teens and early twenties) use as a "digital eyeroll" when older generations don't understand their actions. "The older generations grew up with a certain mind-set, and we have a different perspective," said 19-year-old Shannon O'Connor to The New York Times. She said, for instance, boomers may not "believe people can get jobs with dyed hair."

(The New York Times)

Is There Really a Problem with the Phrase?

The "OK, boomer" expression gained popularity after Chloe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of New Zealand's Green Party, used it in front of Parliament during a conversation about climate change after she was heckled by an older member. "Ageism is undoubtedly a very real and serious issue we are facing in workplaces," said Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, president of HRU Technical Resources, an IT and engineering staffing firm in Lansing, Mich. But, he noted, "Chloe and Gen Z are fed up!" Younger generations have been criticized by older generations for the last decade, and now they're striking back. "I'm not a fan of name-calling on either side," Sackett said. "I don't like it when we try to throw an entire generation into a bucket, because the moment you do that you meet someone from that generation that believes in the exact same things you do and might even be doing more to fight for those beliefs than you are. Chloe knows this, but she was in a passionate speech to save her planet."

(The Tim Sackett Project)

More Generations Are Working Together

Employers may be particularly concerned about a generational disconnect because five generations—including the Silent Generation (who are in their seventies and eighties) and Generation X (who are in their forties and fifties)—are working together for the first time in history. But is "OK, boomer" just a social media spectacle that doesn't reflect a real generational divide? Susan Weinstock, a vice president at AARP, said she was a bit surprised by the feud. "[W]e have a lot of research that shows how much workers actually like to work together no matter the generation," she said.


Connect Employees Across Generations

Successfully assimilating each generation in the workplace requires that HR professionals make time to get to know their employees. When seeking ways to connect employees across all generations most workers of every age want to feel respected, be listened to, have opportunities for mentoring, understand the big picture, exchange ideas, and receive effective communication and positive feedback.

(SHRM Online)

Avoid Ageism

Today's older workers are better educated and living longer than any previous generation. They also want to remain in the workforce longer, but discrimination and outdated assumptions are making that a tricky proposition for many experienced employees. Here's what employers can do to help.

(SHRM Online)

Employing Older Workers Can Help Your Business

In a tight labor market where it can be difficult to compete for talent, more employers are looking carefully at how to leverage the skills and experiences of older workers. They're also helping older workers better understand the job opportunities available, as well as how those workers can help themselves by developing late-career working and retirement plans.

(SHRM Online)



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