Think 'OK Boomer' Is Not OK? Do Something About It | Opinion

Just when you thought 2019 couldn't possibly get any more divisive, along came "OK boomer."

If you haven't heard the hype, "OK boomer" is a meme showing up on the T-shirts, Instagram feeds and YouTube videos of young people across the U.S. and around the world. Members of Generation Z (born 1997 and later, according to the Pew Research Center) are using the phrase to dismissively call out older folks—usually baby boomers—who say something out of touch or condescending to or about the younger generation. The implication in the retort: You just don't understand.

Frankly, what has surprised me most about "OK boomer" is the shock and anger with which many boomers have responded to being ribbed by the younger generation. One radio host went so far last week as to call it the "n-word of ageism." In an interview with Axios, AARP executive Myrna Blyth issued the clap back "OK, millennials. But we're the people that actually have the money." And on Tuesday, Whoopi Goldberg vehemently defended her generation on The View. "People keep saying, 'Oh, y'all are not woke,'" Goldberg said. "We never went to sleep!"

Ageism is illegal and insidious, particularly in the workplace. However, when boomers accuse Gen Zs of ageism when they spread "OK boomer," they are often missing their own ageism—against the young.

As a multigenerational workplace consultant, I am frequently invited to provide workshops to leaders who complain that their millennial and Gen Z employees are any combination of lazy, entitled, narcissistic snowflakes who want trophies for participation. Such flagrant generational stereotyping and shaming is usually tossed off as no big deal. But it is a big deal; it's the perfect example of "punching down" to a group of people with less perceived power. And it can have real, damaging consequences for the achievement and career growth of young people.

What's ironic is that we've almost all been in the position of being the criticized younger generation, including baby boomers. If your grandparents ever told you they walked uphill both ways to school, you know what I'm talking about. Disparaging the young has, in fact, been a bad habit for roughly all of human history. ("I see no hope for the future of our people if we are dependent on the frivolous youth of today," quipped the poet Hesiod all the way back in the eighth century B.C.)

As a Generation Xer (born between 1965 to 1980), I remember that no matter how hard my peers and I worked, we were consistently called "slackers" and the vapid "MTV generation," and our ideas were dismissed because of it. I never understood why, and that's one of the reasons I do the work that I do today.

When I asked a Gen Z on my team for his take on "OK boomer," he replied, "Like most memes, it will die down."

He's probably right, but maybe there's an opportunity here to do more. What if, instead of letting "OK boomer" become just another meme that fades, we used the energy around it as a catalyst for change?

If you are a millennial or Gen Z who is about to say or retweet "OK boomer," instead go register yourself or a peer to vote, or even volunteer for the campaign of a candidate whose views you support. In 2018, voter turnout among Americans aged 65-plus was 65 percent for women and 68 percent for men. Among those 18 to 29 years old, just 38 percent of women and 33 percent of men voted. Perhaps this is why the average age of a U.S. senator is 63.

If you are a baby boomer or anyone else offended by "OK boomer," use that feeling as a reminder to stop shaming, blaming and complaining about millennials and Gen Zs. Instead of clicking on that article about young people spending all their money on avocado toast and oat milk lattes, take on a mentee at your company or volunteer at a local youth organization. Sit at the "kids table" this Thanksgiving and talk to your younger family members about their experiences and opinions. I'll bet you'll find you have more in common than you think.

Grandfather grandson intergenerational conflict
"OK boomer" originated on the video app TikTok and quickly caught on as a way for Gen Z to dismiss baby boomers who criticize young people or express views unpopular with them, such as climate change denial. Getty/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

In researching and writing a recent book about generational diversity in the workplace, that was one of my biggest findings: Members of all generations mostly want the same things from life—personal achievement, fulfilling relationships, financial security and control over our choices. We just grew up in eras with different challenges and opportunities. And most of us believe our differences make us stronger: 87 percent of U.S. workers say a multigenerational workforce increases innovation and problem solving, according to a 2018 poll by Randstad.

Most people also understand that generational stereotypes are counterproductive, but still they persist.

Even Gen Zs, creators of "OK boomer," are falling into this trap. I was recently leading a program on professional success for entry-level employees during their new-hire orientation. While I was mingling before the session, I overheard a table of fresh-out-of-college employees talking about the lack of work ethic and inappropriate behavior of another group.

"I'm sorry to interrupt," I said, "but may I ask who you are talking about?"

With rolled eyes they replied, "The interns!"

And so the cycle begins anew. Until we make a conscious choice to stop it. I suggest we start right now. OK, everyone?

Lindsey Pollak is a workplace consultant and author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace (Harper Business, May 2019).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

Think 'OK Boomer' Is Not OK? Do Something About It | Opinion | Opinion