Is 'OK, boomer' ageist? John Roberts is mulling it, but laws won't fix generational shaming.

Legal protections aren't the answer we need. We must change the lenses we use to view people of other generations.
Image: John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts mused about whether using the phrase 'OK, boomer' could be an indication of age bias on on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.Matt Rourke / AP
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By Megan Gerhardt, professor of leadership and management at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University

What started as a simple meme has reached the highest levels of the Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts questioning on Wednesday whether using the phrase "OK, boomer" in the workplace could be considered age discrimination prohibited by law. Despite insistence from many millennials and Generation Zers that the phrase is more about an outdated attitude than physical age, the reference is clearly an age-based putdown, as its official entry into the Supreme Court argument database this week makes clear.

Our most maligned generation — those ages 23 to 38 — have no federal protection from age discrimination whatsoever.

But whatever courts ultimately hold about using the term "OK, boomer," at least those in that age cohort (55 to 73) have protections from ageism in the workplace. Because the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevents employment discrimination only against anyone over age 40, it means our most maligned generation — those ages 23 to 38 — have no federal protection from age discrimination whatsoever.

No one alive today has borne the brunt of generational name-calling as much as millennials. Following labels of disparagement ranging from the "Me Me Me Generation" to "The Trophy Kids," nowadays just the word "millennial" has become synonymous with a rush of negative adjectives, most often "entitled" and "lazy" (despite evidence that they are neither). "'Millennials' has become a sort of snide shorthand in the pages of The Wall Street Journal," the newspaper's own style guide acknowledged in 2017. "We have had a laugh at their expense. ... And at other times we have treated them like an alien species."

So if "OK, boomer" is being debated as an indicator of discrimination against older employees, it seems like a snippy "You're such a millennial" should be next on the list. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, "it is not illegal for an employer or other covered entity to favor an older worker over a younger one."

When the age discrimination act was passed in 1967, it was determined that protections were needed to make sure older employees had fair opportunities. Younger employees weren't similarly protected, because opportunities for them were plentiful and they weren't seen as needing protection. However, in the half-century since, workplace dynamics have changed significantly, leading some to question whether age protection should be expanded to include everyone.

At the very least, the way society acknowledges that older workers can face ageism but ignores that confronting younger ones is problematic. But it's also not the core problem. Much more troubling is the fact that if "OK, boomer" is now controversial enough to be raised at the Supreme Court as a potentially ageist phrase, it means we've entered an era in which one's generational identity can be considered an insult. Legal protection from generational slander isn't the answer we need. We need to change the lenses we're using to view people of other generations.

It's become socially acceptable to see age cohorts as the enemy — outsiders to be ridiculed and dismissed. And it's not just out-of-touch boomers and entitled millennials. Gen Xers carry the slacker label because of their desire for more work-life balance, and Gen Zers are nicknamed "snowflakes" to mock their perceived need to be seen as special and protected from anything potentially offensive.

While debates rage about how accurate any of those projected traits are — and how different people who grew up in disparate eras really are from one another — every generation certainly does have access to particular knowledge, experiences and opportunities that previous and future generations don't, making generational identity interesting and important. Unfortunately, the very experiences that help a generation adapt to its own point in history can, at times, create a disconnect with those coming before and after.

Those differences can be frustrating and challenging. Yet, just as we eventually realized that valuing the diverse perspectives of both men and women in the workplace made good business sense, we need to get past the generational name-calling to appreciate the benefit that generational variation can bring to the workplace. That means resisting the assumption that a millennial is "entitled" because she offers an innovative suggestion to solve a problem. It also means not dismissing a boomer's input as "old school" when he relates how the problem was successfully solved in the past. The generational diversity we now have in the workplace represents a transformative business opportunity: increased access to various kinds of valuable information and perspectives.

It shouldn't take the chief justice to stop us from attacking colleagues of other generations, especially when there is so much potential in understanding the perspective of those younger and older. When that type of diversity is appreciated, it can lead to improved creativity and innovation, better communication among employees and increased levels of motivation and satisfaction at work. That's something we don't need to be protected from — it's something we need to embrace.