One of the latest viral memes circulating the internet in 2019 is “OK, boomer” - as in, baby boomer. The viral phrase is the latest source of multigenerational tension, culturally. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, Dictionary.com has defined it as: “a viral internet slang phrase used, often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.” The meme originated on the social media app Tik Tok, but received global attention when 25-year-old New Zealand lawmaker, Chlöe Swarbrick, used the phrase to respond to an older member’s heckling during a speech she was giving on climate change.
However, as Ms. Swarbrick’s experience shows, the use of the phrase is not limited to the internet. While the phrase has swept through social media, it has also made an appearance in a place where its use could be problematic: the workplace. While some consider the phrase to be a clever joke, as it moves from social media into the workplace it could be perceived as an ageist insult or even harassment. Saying “OK, boomer” to a coworker may have some serious consequences.
Age Discrimination in Employment
Age discrimination in the workplace is prohibited under some state and federal laws. In 1967, Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) to protect individuals who are age 40 and older from arbitrary discrimination in employment. The ADEA prohibits discrimination in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, compensation, benefits, assignments, and working conditions.
Many courts, including the First Circuit in Riveras-Rodriguez v. Frito Lay Snacks Caribbean, have found that an employee can bring an ADEA claim based on a “hostile work environment.” In a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must prove that the offensive conduct is (1) “severe and pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment” and (2) “subjectively perceived by the victim as abusive." To assess whether a workplace is a hostile environment the First Circuit stated that courts will look to the totality of the circumstances, considering the frequency and severity of the discriminatory conduct; whether the conduct is threatening, humiliating or merely offensive; and “whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance.” Use of the popular phrase in the workplace is not out of the realm of possibility and neither is its use by younger employees to demean older coworkers, but its continued use could be cause for concern where it is likely to create an abusive work atmosphere.
While some internet trends disappear as quickly as they materialize, “OK, boomer” has the potential to linger, and with it, the potential for conduct that rises to the level of discrimination or harassment. It is easy to write off the viral meme as a joke or merely a dismissive retort used by younger generations to brush off members of an older generation. However, with the increased divisiveness among generational groups, the “joke” has the potential to be the subject of an age discrimination suit, especially when used in the workplace.
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