Unless you’ve been willfully disengaging with the media over the last couple weeks, you’ve probably heard the viral catchphrase “OK, Boomer.” First there was the video of Chlöe Swarbrick, the 25-year-old politician for the New Zealand Green party who shut down an older member of parliament by lobbing the phrase at him when he started to heckle her. Then came the onslaught of op-eds, with titles ranging from “This Boomer Is OK With ‘OK Boomer’” to “Is ‘OK Boomer’ an Ageist Slur?” There’s even been a boon in “OK Boomer” merch ahead of the holidays, in case your stocking would feel empty without some generational mockery.
The “OK Boomer” retort — which has been called both hilarious and insulting, depending on who you ask — is usually uttered (or memed) by millennials and Gen Zers, and aimed at the baby boomers they deem desperately out of touch or hopelessly resistant to change. It’s part eye-roll, part accusation — for leaving younger generations with the short end of the stick when it comes to jobs, the environment, and college loans (to name just a few sticks). Not only that, but a recent, widely publicized health care report by Moody’s Analytics and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association showed that while millennials are the largest, most educated, and most connected generation the world has ever seen, they’re also going to be sicker and die younger than their parents if current trends continue. As Thrive’s founder and CEO Arianna Huffington put it in her weekly newsletter: “Given the not-OK world we’re handing off to them, a defiant meme aimed at boomers is letting us off easy!”
Defiant memes are one thing, but discrimination in the workplace is another. That’s why, considering the ubiquity of the phrase and the multigenerational nature of today’s workforce, it was only a matter of time before experts addressed the elephant in the conference room: “OK Boomer” may be OK in our social media feeds and on t-shirts, but it’s not OK at work.
The piece of legislation that protects workers 40 and over from bias in the workplace — the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) — could also extend to this catchphrase. These potential legal ramifications were the subject of an active Twitter debate that ensued after a Business Insider reporter posted a press release from labor and employment attorney Joseph Sirback on the matter. In his release, he explains, “The use of ‘OK Boomer’ in the workplace could be sufficient evidence of age-based hostility to support a lawsuit under the ADEA.” Whether it’s intended as a joke or a cut-down, spreading the “OK Boomer” sentiment at work could qualify as a discriminatory — and punishable — offense.
But even if employees avoid the actual phrase, the meme of the moment points to a larger truth in our workforce: As people are living longer and retiring later, businesses are now employing workers with as much as a six-decade age difference. Yes, a 23-year-old could work alongside a 73-year-old on the same project. And with memes like “OK Boomer” fanning the flames of generational discord and age-related stereotypes, the challenges for both employees and companies are real.
Consider, for instance, an email that leaked — and led to a lawsuit — from a new director of the English-as-a-second language program at The Ohio State University to his colleague at another university in 2014. The new program director (who inadvertently copied someone on his team) wrote that he was dealing with “an extraordinarily change-averse population of people, almost all of whom are over 50” — and said managing them was “like herding hippos.” Most of the time, views such as his never make their way into the headlines or legal system, but that doesn’t make them any less damaging. Workplaces are brimming with ageist generalizations — from “stuck-in-their-ways boomers” to “Gen Z snowflakes” to “entitled millennials.” (It’s worth noting that the law, through ADEA, only offers legal protection for people age 40 or older, “which opens up a separate line of inquiry as to why stereotyping the young as ‘lazy millennials’ is considered acceptable,” Michael North, Ph.D., assistant professor of management and organizations at the N.Y.U. Stern School of Business, tells Thrive.)
With employees running the age gamut, it can be a real challenge for companies to keep everyone inspired, productive, and getting along. And age-related stereotypes only make things harder — especially because “there’s a considerable variety of preferences and values within any of these groups,” note researchers reporting on their findings in the Harvard Business Review. “So what might really matter at work are not actual differences between generations, but people’s beliefs that these differences exist. These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and have troubling implications for how people are managed and trained,” the researchers continue.
Good for business
Companies have a strong incentive to figure out how to work through these management challenges: Having a cross-generational workforce is actually good for business, says North. “Like other forms of diversity, it opens up your organization to novel insights for how to be productive.” Susan Weinstock, VP for Financial Resilience at AARP, adds that four different German studies published between 2008 and 2013 found that age diversity can improve organizational performance, if managed well. “When there are age-inclusive H.R. practices, organizational performance goes up and employee turnover goes down,” she tells Thrive.
So what are some of the ways companies are attempting to ease tensions between generations in their workforce? “I’m a huge proponent of ‘mutual/reciprocal mentoring,’ a concept where a younger employee and an older employee purposefully (and strategically) make an effort to help each other learn new ideas,” says Alexis Abramson, Ph.D., a generational consultant for businesses who says that having a multigenerational workforce can be a distinct advantage for organizations today. “On the surface, it can seem difficult for business leaders and managers to get five generations to collaborate and communicate effectively together,” she says. “But it isn’t an impossible task. Each generation brings strengths, attitudes, and perspectives that will benefit the company” — and each other.
For instance, when facing hard times, older generations may be able to offer millennials and Gen Zers wisdom from their lived experiences: “They can pass along wisdom about economic cycles and provide a long-range view of things,” Ben Dattner, Ph.D., an industrial and organizational psychologist and consultant told Monster.com.
Similarly, instead of scoffing at younger generations’ ability to prioritize work-life integration and demand company accommodations, in a New York Times analysis titled “Young People Are Going to Save Us All From Office Life,” authors Claire Cain Miller and Sanam Yar argue that millennials and Gen Z could introduce the systemized flexibility that we could all benefit from. And young workers are moving the needle on mental health at work as well. “We have a few members of our team who accepted their positions at our company with the understanding that we’ll need to make allowances for them to leave the office for their weekly or bi-weekly appointments with their psychologists,” Annika Welander, partner and managing director of Someoddpilot, a creative agency in Chicago, told Thrive. The company supports their youngest employees’ efforts to address their psychological well-being, and hopes they’ll help normalize it for the rest of their staff — across every demographic.
Abramson says that some companies are guilty of exaggerating the differences within their workforce by creating generationally focused amenities. (Regular office happy hours — which require flexible evening schedules and may alienate those who can’t attend — come to mind.) But in the end, H.R. efforts that address the well-being of all employees and boost the people experience for every worker go much further than superfluous perks.
It takes creativity and curiosity for “companies to look for solutions to keep their entire workforce happy,” which starts with taking the time to learn more about employees’ “individual values, attitudes, and motivational buttons,” Abramson says. Ultimately, she notes, “in order to reduce unnecessary rifts between generations at work, we must treat each member of our team as an individual, not a stereotype based on the year they were born.”
With additional reporting by Mallory Stratton.
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