Quantcast
Connect with us

Why saying ‘OK boomer’ at work is considered age discrimination – but millennial put-downs aren’t

Published

on

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 of Americans 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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?

Evidence of 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.

Workers aged 40 and older are protected by a federal statute called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits harassment and discrimination on the basis of age.

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. The only way to tell whether a decision like that is tainted by age discrimination is the surrounding context: comments and behavior 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Companies also risk age-based harassment claims. Saying “OK boomer” one time does not legally qualify as harassing behavior. 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 Xers 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.”

Lumping Gen Xers into a category with even older workers doesn’t make it better. Either way, you are commenting on their age.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

One of the most famous age-discrimination cases – which made its way all the way up to the 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 defense.

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?

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act only kicks in for workers who are 40 or older, which means millennials aren’t covered. For now.

ADVERTISEMENT

The oldest millennials will turn 40 later this year. So fear not, the millennial jokes may eventually become a legal problem for companies as these workers age.

Also, a few states, including New York, ban age discrimination for all workers over 18, and employers in those states probably should have done something about the millennial jokes.

Millennials tired of their elders making fun of their love for avocado toast are out of luck.
By Nelli Syrotynska/Shutterstock.com

Why older workers need protections

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

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s why 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. After all, that meme didn’t make itself.

[ Expertise in your inbox. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter and get a digest of academic takes on today’s news, every day. ]The Conversation

Elizabeth C. Tippett, Associate Professor, School of Law, University of Oregon

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ADVERTISEMENT


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Melania Trump scorched by columnist for standing by president’s Thunberg bullying: ‘Indefensible’

Published

on

In a piece for the Washington Post, columnist Karen Tumulty called out first lady Melania Trump for her statement defending her husband's bullying of 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg in a fit of jealousy after she was selected Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

Responding to a statement from the White House that stated, “BeBest is the First Lady’s initiative, and she will continue to use it to do all she can to help children. It is no secret that the President and First Lady often communicate differently — as most married couples do. Their son is not an activist who travels the globe giving speeches. He is a 13-year-old who wants and deserves privacy,” Tumulty wasn't having it.

Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

BUSTED: Devin Nunes is hiding how he’s paying for all his frivolous lawsuits — which could land him in more trouble

Published

on

On Saturday, the Fresno Bee dived into a lingering question: How does Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) pay for all the lawsuits he is filing against journalists, satirists, and political critics?

"Nunes, R-Tulare, has filed lawsuits against Twitter, anonymous social media users known as Devin Nunes' Cow and Devin Nunes' Mom, a Republican political strategist, media companies, journalists, progressive watchdog groups, a political research firm that worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and a retired farmer in Nunes’ own district," noted the Bee.

These lawsuits were mainly filed in Virginia — a state with very loose laws against so-called "SLAPP suits," or meritless lawsuits intended to drown people in legal expenses in retaliation for expressing political opinions. Nunes was assisted in these suits by Steven Biss, a Virginia attorney, and yet except for the suit against the retired farmer, there is no clear record in Nunes' FEC reports of how he paid for the suits.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Trump brings up Brett Kavanaugh in rage tweet at Democrats about coming impeachment trial

Published

on

On Saturday, President Donald Trump brought up Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in a bizarre rant against the "Radical Left, Do Nothing Dems" and his anger over the direction of the impeachment process:

After watching the disgraceful way that a wonderful man, @BrettKavanaugh, was treated by the Democrats, and now seeing first hand how these same Radical Left, Do Nothing Dems are treating the whole Impeachment Hoax, I understand why so many Dems are voting Republican!

Continue Reading