While scanning through social media, the OK Boomer meme can be good for a quick laugh, but as it spreads to our workplaces, what effect might it have? Recently, Evan Abbot, Director of Organizational Development and Learning, and Lorrie Ray, attorney, had a conversation about the OK Boomer trend. The conversation went like this:
Evan: Hey, Lorrie! I’d love to pick your brain. A member called, and we were talking about generational issues in the workplace. During the conversation, the member asked about the new phrase hitting pop culture, “O.K. Boomer” – you know, the new Millennial comeback when Xers or Boomers start getting a little . . . well . . . Xer-y and Boomer-y. Now, I’m not an attorney, but some bells and whistles go off with that phrase. What do you think? Is it just the newest form of a generational eye roll, or is there something there to be concerned about?
Lorrie: What I have found in the workplace is that leaders and managers can get themselves in trouble by making any comment based on age that indicates that somebody who is older cannot do the job or can’t work with new technology because they are older than their co-workers.
Evan: I totally get that. Absolutely. But, what about the offhanded comment – almost like a “whatever”? Boomers have been minimizing Millennials for years, so doesn’t the old phrase “turnabout is fair play” apply?
Lorrie: It sort of would depend on who is saying it to whom. If a low-level employee said it to a senior manager, it would not create a cause of action, because the younger low-level employee would not be in a position to make any decisions that would be negative towards the Boomer. However, if somebody were in a position to make decisions regarding someone’s pay or promotions, and they were making those kinds of statements, it could be viewed as evidence of discrimination. Of course, many have bashed Millennials; they should not have, but quite frankly, Millennials are not legally protected in most states, because they are under 40.
Evan: So, I get the power thing. What if someone, or a group, regardless of power, were saying “O.K. Boomer” a lot – in meetings, down the hall, and just making it a regular practice to their older colleagues regardless of power status?
Lorrie: Yes, if, if there is a single mention of saying “O.K. Boomer” it is not going to be age harassment, but if an older worker cannot walk down the hall without hearing “Ok Boomer” it starts to become pervasive, and then you could tip over into harassment.
So, Evan, it’s time for me to put you on the hot seat. I kind of worry from a cultural standpoint if people start calling each other names in the workplace. What are your thoughts?
Evan: You know it’s interesting. When I present on generations, one of the admonitions I give any audience is we seem to love to throw around stereotypes about Boomers, Xer’s, and Millennials – putting people in convenient little boxes. However, make those same careless stereotypes about different ethnicities or gender, and employers would likely find themselves in a lot of lawsuits. So, I’m not a big fan of jumping right to generational labels. Understanding generations can help as one lens of diversity. And it is just that – one lens.
Lorrie: I agree that it seems like a double standard. How do you think that impacts the workplace when people are sort of badmouthing other generations?
Evan: It’s as loaded as talking negatively about any other lens of diversity. It can be helpful to understand the generational context people come into the workplace with and what influences their expectations. I was raised on having a quarter in my pocket for a payphone. Now, I love having a smartphone available to make a call when I need to or search Google to answer a question. I had to learn to take advantage of that convenience. The younger generations have been raised with them, so it’s a tool, not a toy. And, I know some Boomer colleagues – not to stereotype – who have their nose in their phones more than my Millennial colleagues!
Lorrie: So, I’ve mentioned where I think things go too far from a legal point of view. What do you think from a workplace culture point of view?
Evan: Oh, I think we crossed that line years ago! Millennials have taken a beating – unfairly, if I may add. The constant maligning of the Millennial generation has taken a toll, and they’re saying they’ve had enough.
Lorrie: And I have to say, I know what you mean. I have Millennial colleagues who resent being lumped together, and they have as about as much in common as my friends who are my age. I mean we have very different things that we do, and we don’t like being categorized in this single silo.
Evan: Exactly! The Millennial generation spans anywhere from early 20s to late 30s! So, you’ve got college students to parents! And, I think it’s fair to say, none of us are exactly who we were at 22 – yet the stereotypes persist.
Lorrie: I think understanding where different people are coming from based on their age and their experience is excellent. How could this “O.K. Boomer” thing negatively impact an organization and how would you advise them?
Evan: Great question. The first is a hard truth: the Millennial workforce demographic is larger than either the Boomer or the Xer demographic. And, they are making themselves heard. This sort of language starts creating division. It creates camps of us versus them and that’s not good. “O.K. Boomer” is more of a symptom of a lack of workplace inclusivity.
Organizations that want to get in front of this need to be asking themselves if they are creating an inclusive workplace. Are they listening to all the voices – even younger voices – of their employees? Hear me clearly, individuals making the “O.K. Boomer” comment definitely need to be spoken to. And, the individuals leaving the Millennial colleagues out of the conversations and not tapping into their expertise need to be spoken with as well. You hired those Millennials for a reason. You hired your Xer’s for a reason. You hired your Boomers for a reason. All of those voices should be able to be involved in the conversations that they’re being invited into.
Lorrie: That’s an excellent point.
Evan: Well, thank you. If I can, one more point.
Lorrie: Go ahead!
Evan: Organizations also have to start looking at the question, “Are your Millennials being given enough responsibility?” Part of this “O.K. Boomer” thing is a new generation wanting to be in the driver’s seat around finding serious solutions to serious issues. Some of us aren’t ready to turn over the wheel. The conversation doesn’t have to be either/or. We can create inclusive work environments and create more leadership opportunities without having to put us Xers and Boomers out to pasture.
What can you take away from this conversation? Employers who are seeing this generational disconnect can use this as a conversation starter. Ask where the sarcasm is coming from; is it meant just to be funny or is it a deeper issue of employees not feeling heard? Are you as an organization missing out on valuable skills and innovation because of a dismissive culture? Employers should also assess if there are legal risks in their workplaces as a result of this divide and address them immediately.