Updated: Feb 13
It seemed pretty funny in the beginning, but OK Boomer is turning into a big point of contention.
Today’s mindless moment is brought to you, once again, by me. When someone forwarded me a link to the “Ok Boomer” meme, I thought it was funny. After all, Boomers have been pretty critical of millennials (aka “Snowflakes”) since they entered the workforce, so I took the short retort in the spirit of good fun and thought it was harmless enough. As a boomer, however, I underestimated the power of social media and my initial response was an example of a mindless moment. I didn’t initially realize it was GenZ that created the movement, almost as a pre-emptive strike against older people based on watching the continuous contention between boomers and millennials.
It turns out Ok Boomer is not just being used as a joke, but as it has gone viral, is turning angry. And that moves the joke into the arena of prejudice and discrimination. Individuals over 40 are protected by law against ageism. The oldest millennials will start turning 40 in a couple of years and then they’ll be protected by the same laws that make it illegal to discriminate based on age. But for now, they nor GenZ are protected and Ok Boomer is being considered by many companies as discriminatory and even responsible for creating hostile work environments.
Is it fair that boomers and traditionalists can label younger workers Snowflakes with no legal repercussions but younger people can be fired for using “Ok Boomer” at work? No, but fairness frequently has nothing to do with the law. As a discriminatory remark, Ok Boomer is being viewed the same as a racial slur by many organizations, so that’s the first cautionary tale here – millennials and GenZ need to be aware they could lose their jobs for using the term at work.
Right now, we have a lot of baby boomers who feel threatened by their lack of tech savvy and resent that younger people don’t respect their wisdom and experience, and that they don’t have the same work ethic boomers thrive in. We have a lot of millennials who are in positions to supervise boomers and don’t know how to communicate with them and resent boomers’ lack of work/life balance and lack of technological skills. And now we have a lot of GenZ entering the workforce with an attitude that the whole thing needs to be torn down altogether, and resent the older generations not only for creating a mess of pretty much everything, but for standing in their way to recreate a better world. All of this creates tension, distrust and an enormous lack of cooperation.
And cooperation is what we need more than anything today. Charles Darwin suggested that “selection” might favor families whose members were cooperative. He also said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
If we can shift from our defensive mindsets into a collaborative mindset that focuses on shared goals and combining resources to create something mutually beneficial, the results could be greater empathy, cooperation and trust.
Instead of clever labeling, which is really generation shaming, name calling, and scapegoating, what if we were more mindful about what different generations can both teach and learn from each other, and how those conversations could result in entirely new ways of solving problems?
From a much more long-term and deeper perspective, we all need to be more mindful of the harmful effects of treating those that are different from us with disrespect or hostility. Indicative of how much faster life moves and changes now, our experiences and memories are vastly different between generations, which was not the case prior to World War I.
Generations are now considered distinct cultures because each has so many completely different sociological, economic and world event experiences, resulting in our collective memories being distinct from each other. Boomers have definitely had a difficult time understanding millennials, and vice versa. GenZ is just entering the workforce and I believe are going to create even more friction at work, as they are not just junior millennials. They are seen as having very little respect for human intelligence and experience. They are being raised in a culture where technology is the source of all wisdom and this is going to result in a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication in working with other generations that are still in the workforce.
I introduced a new workshop last year to address these concerns and the response from participants has been very telling. The divide between generations manifests with older people being somewhat alarmed and younger people nodding their heads a lot. Older participants are not happy with me when I tell them that despite their beliefs and values, if they want to retain employees in their organizations, they are going to have to adapt to the way younger people work. It’s no longer a choice to try to pressure employees to assimilate to the traditional ways of doing things. Their brains just don’t work that way.
We are literally in the midst of a grand shift in social evolution due to technological advances. While traditionalists and boomers may believe that millennials and GenZ are refusing to adapt to the workplace, it’s really the other way around. I’m not saying we have to give up our values, but our beliefs probably need some adjusting. Picture an office setting with an older baby boomer who is 70 years old and the head of a company. This boomer is interviewing a GenZ applicant fresh out of college.
The boomer was raised in an era where news came from printed newspapers delivered each morning, telephones were attached to walls, and the main goal in life was to find a secure job and stay with that company until retirement. The boomer expects loyalty, dedication and a willingness to sacrifice whatever is necessary to get the job done, because that’s what the boomer generation was raised to believe. Introduced to computers for the first time as the boomer approached 40 years of age, the boomer has adapted well enough to using at least basic technology skills and even uses Facebook to keep up with family and friends. The boomer’s primary communication tool is speaking in person, with the written word a close second.
The GenZ applicant began having screen time at the age of 2 years old. The applicant has never had to rely on other people for information or directions because the applicant knows to “just Google it.” The applicant’s brain has adapted to the constant barrage of information available and allows the applicant to process and even desire information in approximately 8 second segments. The applicant prefers images to words. The applicant’s main career goal is to work where the applicant can have the biggest impact. There is no loyalty to any one company. The goal is to be an agent of change to make the world a better place, whether through various companies or as an entrepreneur. The applicant’s primary communication tool is social media. Due to their general lack of writing skills, thanks to emojis, they do prefer in person conversations when it relates to their work performance and potential opportunities.
These two people speak two completely different languages and they have very few shared life experiences. Now of course this entire subject is generalized for the purposes of this post, and there are lots of people who don’t fit neatly into one generational category. But having up to five different generations in the workplace simultaneously is unprecedented and provides a whole new meaning to the term “generation gap.”
There may be lots of legitimate reasons for one generation to resent another, but resenting each other isn’t going to help us progress or correct many of our societal issues. While some are now declaring boomers are thin-skinned because of their reaction to Ok, boomer, it doesn’t really matter if it’s thin-skinned or unfair or reverse discrimination. What matters is the fact that we all have to work together and we all have to address some really big challenges facing the world today.
Remember that mindfulness is non-judgmental awareness. When we feel resentment building, or hear our inner voice saying derogatory things regarding another group, we can change our own thought patterns and behaviors. I’ve witnessed many boomers venting frustration about how younger workers are too sensitive or demand too much time off or are constantly on their devices. I’ve also heard a lot of complaints about a general lack of respect. I’ve also witnessed many younger workers roll their eyes when an older person is speaking, get very frustrated at how slow they are when using technology, and straight out laugh when asked if they have read the company’s procedure manual. And, opposite of boomers, they don’t understand why they should respect wisdom or experience, when information on anything is at their fingertips.
Instead of resisting each other or wishing the other would change, we can accept that we’re different in the ways we think and behave because those come from our life experiences, which are vastly different. But we’re still all human beings with the same universal needs. We each bring value to the table and deserve to be heard. And we can find common ground if we release the strong judgments we are holding against each other.
Instead of judging, we can focus on what we can learn from each other. We can combine and leverage each person’s skill set so that as a group, we arrive at the most options to make the best decisions. And we can practice patience and empathy for our fellow workers, regardless of their age.
Many boomers are working well past the expected retirement age. It’s a fact that we are all going to be working together for some time to come. None of us can predict where technology will take us next and at some point, GenZ will have to learn how to deal with the next cohort, Alphas. So isn’t now a good time to change our mindsets and learn how to be productive together?
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