It is no secret that Generations Y and Z do not often see eye-to-eye with the Baby Boomer generation on a number of complex cultural, social, and political issues. Baby Boomers criticize Millennials (Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Zers (Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2010) as “entitled” and “narcissistic.” In turn, Millennials and Gen Zers criticize Baby Boomers as “hypocritical” and “oblivious.” Baby Boomers fault Millennials and Gen Zers for expecting “participation trophies,” and, in turn, Millennials and Gen Zers fault their Baby Boomer parents and grandparents for coming up with and handing out “participation trophies” in the first place. (Indeed, Millennials, who by and large are children of Baby Boomers, are often referred to as “Echo Boomers.”)
As the inter-generational conflict raged on, the term “snowflake” was coined to capture the perceived overly sensitive and selfish attitudes Baby Boomers often attributed to Millennials and Gen Zers. Until 2019, however, there was no term directed to Baby Boomers the way “snowflake” was to Millennials and Gen Zers. Then, “OK, Boomer” happened.
“OK, Boomer” is the “clapback” heard around the world – or, at the very least, around all of social media. The phrase was coined to provide a short, sharp rebuke to comments or ideas perceived to be narrow-minded or based on outdated notions, which Millennials and Gen Zers often attributed to Baby Boomers. The term became prevalent in both traditional and social media, and in numerous articles, memes, and tweets.
“OK, Boomer” does not mean “OK, old person,” much like “snowflake” does not mean “young person.” Rather, “OK, Boomer” simply conveys Millennials’ and Gen Zers’ disagreements with Baby Boomers’ cultural, social, and political stances, much like “snowflake” conveys Baby Boomers’ disagreements with those of Millennials and Gen Zers. Simply stated, neither term has anything to do with chronological age.
Whatever its place in popular culture – or in the inter-generational conflict – may be, it is abundantly clear that in light of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, “OK, Boomer” has no place in office e-mails, meetings, banter, or other interactions. That is because the phrase, by its language (although not by its meaning) is intrinsically tied to age. “Boomer” is firmly rooted in “Baby Boomer.” In turn, the Baby Boomer generation is defined (like all generations) by the time period within which its members were born – specifically, 1944-1964. This means that the youngest Baby Boomers are 55 years old, while the oldest members of the generation are in their mid-70s. As such, all Baby Boomers are covered by the anti-discrimination and harassment protections both California and federal law provide for workers over the age of 40. The phrase “OK, Boomer” may therefore by interpreted to suggest bias against older workers, and expose employers to liability under laws such as the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
Training can play a significant part in reducing such exposure. Millennials are currently between the ages of 38 and 23, and already make up a majority of the country’s workforce. Some research suggests that by 2020, Millennials will make up half of the workforce, and Gen Zers one third. In other words, Millennials and Gen Zers, together, will make up the vast majority of the working population. Because Millennials and Gen Zers do not use the phrase “OK, Boomer” to refer to chronological age, they may innocently use it at the office, unaware of its potential implications. Training can serve as a reminder that even such use of a popular social media quip can have serious consequences. It can thereby reduce the likelihood that the phrase will find its way into the workplace.