Commentary: It's not okay to say 'OK boomer'

Commentary: It's not okay to say 'OK boomer'

When I was an employment lawyer, I heard tons of hilarious stories of things people said in the workplace, says University of Oregon's Elizabeth C Tippett.

OK, boomer screengrab
Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick speaking in New Zealand parliament. (Screengrab: Facebook/Chloe Swarbrick) 

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.

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 you’re talking about the workplace, offensiveness is not the primary problem. The bigger issue is that the insult is age-related.

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. 

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 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 behaviour. 

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 X-ERS ARE COVERED TOO

And it doesn’t matter if the target isn’t 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, you’re essentially saying: “You’re 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 doesn’t 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 customer’s hair.

When I was an employment lawyer, I heard tons of hilarious stories of things people said in the workplace. But that’s 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.
A senior on her way to work. (Photo: Unsplash)

TIT FOR TAT

To millennials who have suffered through years of being called “snowflakes” by their elders, protests of age discrimination can seem a bit rich. Why didn’t HR ban all those millennial jokes about avocado toast?

Boomers might seem really powerful, and yes, they might be your boss’ boss’ boss.

But older workers are more vulnerable than they seem. Older workers are expensive – by the time they’ve worked their way up the corporate ladder, their generous salaries start to weigh on the balance sheet. 

READ: Commentary: Navigating the new road to modern elderhood

And management may have trouble envisioning spectacular growth and innovative ideas from them years into the future, even if they are ready and willing to deliver.

That’s why the US Congress thought it was important to extend protections to those workers. It wanted employers to treat them as individuals who shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because of their age.

And in many ways, that’s what young people seem to want as well: A little respect for what they bring to the table. 

Elizabeth C Tippett is Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Oregon. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation.