The latest catchphrase in the ongoing generational battle between Millennials and their more senior counterparts may have consequences for employers if permitted in the workplace. The phrase, “OK, Boomer” has increasingly gained popularity among Millennials and Generation Z’ers as a way of dismissing comments or habits from older generations that they view as out of touch. The term was initially coined in response to an online video rant by an unidentified older man, in which he criticized younger generations for their sensitivity and perceived failure to launch, calling them “snowflakes” and “Peter Pans.” The term has since expanded from its initial meme form to become increasingly used as an in-person retort – most notably on the floor of Parliament in New Zealand.
As the phrase becomes more common, so does the risk for employers. Because the “Boomer” in “OK, Boomer” refers to the Baby Boomer generation, which consists of individuals born between 1946 and 1964, its ageist undertones can run afoul of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and its state law counterparts. These laws protect workers age 40 and older from age-related discrimination. Notably, it is the effect of the language, not the speaker’s intent, that determines whether the use of a potentially ageist term creates a hostile work environment for older workers.
The suggestion that “OK, Boomer” could be discriminatory has prompted the ire of some younger workers, especially given that Millennials have long been the brunt of workplace jokes. As Elizabeth C. Tippett, an associate professor at University of Oregon School of Law explained, “[t]o 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?”
While this raises an important issue to be addressed from a workplace culture perspective, from a purely legal standpoint, the ADEA does not protect employees under 40. Accordingly, ageist comments toward older workers, even when used innocently or in jest, can create workplace claims. Nonetheless, ageist comments of any kind can create a negative workplace environment and are thus best avoided altogether.
To combat these risks, employers are advised to proactively remind their employees that “Ok, Boomer” is inherently an age-based insult, and that ageist language—like racist, sexist, and other discriminatory language—has no place in the workplace, regardless of at whom it is directed.