“OK Boomer”: Stopping Ageism Before it Starts

“OK Boomer” memes and GIFs seem to be overtaking the internet. From Reddit to Facebook, the “Ok Boomer” craze has gained momentum as a way to dismiss commentary and fuel arguments among Millennials, Generation Z and the Baby Boomer generations. Initially contained to social media and online use, the phrase seemed harmless.  It gave individuals the ability to voice frustration and shut down arguments behind the anonymity of the internet.  But, as the phrase has grown in popularity, its use has extended into other social spheres, including the workplace.

Today’s workforce is the most generationally diverse in American history. Employees enter the workforce in their early twenties, if not earlier, and continue working well into their seventies. This unique mix of employees can help organizations create dynamic teams fueled by varied experiences and collaboration. At the same time, having employees spanning five generations can create its own unique challenges. The phrase “OK Boomer” and others like it, can create tension and unintentional ageism in the workplace.

The phrase, “OK Boomer” was born as a response to social, political, and economic frustrations. Similarly to the negative use of the word “Millennial” and the phrase “Snowflake”, the term allows people to express discontent and place blame while maintaining the guise that it is “all in good fun”. While these terms were never quite respectful, their migration from memes and into more personable social spheres has created unanticipated issues. These phrases create a climate where individual ideas and contributions are invalidated before they have the chance to be brought to the table, due to generational differences. This dismissive and ageist behavior, intentionally or unintentionally, breeds frustration and distrust, creating a disrespectful and toxic work environment through its use.

One example of this behavior, intention, and effects on the workplace is in New Zealand’s Parliament. Recently, the phrase “OK Boomer” was used out of frustration by a representative when another member of Parliament disagreed with her. While she may have been using the phrase out of frustration, as do many others, it invalidated an argument that she had yet to hear, based solely on the speaker’s age. While it may not always be intended as ageist, the phrase implies a generational ignorance, and can easily create an environment where employees feel they are not being heard and respected.

As employers, it is our responsibility to ensure a safe working environment for all employees, and this can mean putting a stop to discrimination before it enters the workplace. One way we can do this is by creating adequate, clear policy. Every organization should adopt policies surrounding social media. Beyond its use in the workplace, employers should create clear expectations about what is acceptable interaction with coworkers and representation of the organization. In addition to policies regarding social media, employer should create policy that clearly defines expectations for conduct in the workplace. Update this policy often to ensure that issues like this are integrated cleanly into the policy and communicated to employees. Policy that supports respectful behavior and empowers employees can create a positive environment where a multi-generational workforce can learn from one another and thrive.

“OK Boomer” is just one example of how social media can impact our lives and our organizations. While it may be intended as a joke or even an insensitive jab, the implicit meaning of the phrase goes far beyond that. Today’s workers’ interact with others outside their own age group in the workplace more than anywhere else, and as employers we have an opportunity. Through policy and enforcing mutual respect in the office we can improve not only our workplace but our community, creating an expectation of empathy, respect, and kindness.

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