The hostility – contrived or otherwise – between Millennials & Generation Z v. Baby Boomers has become pervasive in media, public forums and online – recently giving birth to the viral phrase, “Ok, Boomer!” It’s been used by younger generations in response to interrupted city hall presentations on climate change, Donald Trump tweets, cringe-worthy YouTube videos or really any remark of condescension toward those under 30 or issues of great importance to them. The phrase is on memes, t-shirts and a growing inventory of merchandise, and The New York Times announced it “marks the end of friendly generational relations.”
As our Los Angeles age discrimination lawyers can explain, “Ok, Boomer!” may seem at worst a rudely dismissive declarative statement on generational differences, but if it worms its way into workplace vernacular, it’s likely to be presented as evidence at some point in an employment lawsuit. That’s because age (over 40) is a protected category in the workplace. There are numerous state and federal laws that shield older workers from discriminatory, adverse employment action on that basis. However, it’s notoriously challenging to prove. A phrase like this tossed around more than once, particularly among more than one staffer or supervisor, the case for age discrimination can get much easier.
Referred to as the “digital equivalent of an eye roll,” it might seem harmless with strangers online or even across the Thanksgiving dinner table, but it can pretty quickly cease to be a joke and start being a real problem in the workplace. And it’s not that even employment attorneys can’t take a joke, but the fact is it’s been more than 50 years since the passage of the Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967 and still 6 in 10 older workers say they have experienced age discrimination at work.
Repeated use of this phrase could amount to creation of a hostile work environment for older workers, and employers need to take this seriously. Most workers understand that use of dismissive and/or derogatory comments on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or national origin aren’t appropriate. But such comments made on the basis of age can be just as damaging, from a legal standpoint. Issues are probably most likely to arise if a supervisor says it to/around a subordinate over 40, who is then subsequently demoted, transferred or fired.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports age discrimination accounts for roughly 1 in 5 employment discrimination complaints filed with the agency. Roughly 17,000 age discrimination complaints were filed with the agency last year.
Employers should likely consider reminding their workers that this kind of age-related phrase disparaging older workers can be costly not only for individual employees (discipline or their job) but the company (in the form of a lawsuit).
It should be noted that the oldest of Millennials will start turning 40 in 2021. For now though, federal law doesn’t extend age discrimination protections to younger workers. Older employees referring to younger workers as “snowflakes” likely won’t result in an age discrimination case on the basis of a hostile work environment (hostile – and unproductive – though it might be).