Overcoming “OK Boomer” in the workplace

ok boomer by millennial

I hadn’t heard about the “OK Boomer” meme until I saw a video of Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of New Zealand’s Parliament, use the term to silence an older fellow lawmaker while she was speaking about the failure of current and previous political leaders to limit carbon emissions.

It was highly amusing (even the guy behind Swarbrick flashed a smile) and an entirely appropriate response (the guy was heckling her!). But I’ve sinced learned that “OK Boomer” also is used more broadly as a putdown of Baby Boomers and their patronizing ways — not to mention their reluctance to get out of the way.

That’s what executive recruiter Jack Kelly writes in Forbes. “The current trend of anti-Boomer anger centers on the accusation that Baby Boomers have taken all the good jobs,” Kelly argues. “They refuse to surrender their job privilege and remain gainfully employed, despite the entreaties of younger workers begging for a chance to advance.”

As a freelancer of one decade, I can assure Millennials as well as members of Gen X and Gen Z that this Boomer stands in no one’s way. In fact, I am cheering you all on. And why wouldn’t I? You are the future!

Still, while your frustration is understandable, some context and empathy are in order. Many Boomers were financially devastated by the Great Recession, and simply can’t afford to retire. In fact, jobs site Glassdoor says people born between 1944 and 1964 “are the fastest-growing segment of the labor force in the U.S.”

Kelly also drops some hard workplace truths on readers:

The reality is that it is difficult for everyone in corporate America. Bosses are mean, callous and take you for granted. You’ll get passed over for a promotion, in favor of the manager’s pet employee. Rapidly changing shifts in the business world, including technology, automation and globalization, may make your job irrelevant and no longer needed. Cost-cutting measures mean that you won’t get a raise and have to worry about getting fired. There is intense competition among peers to gain the good assignments to fast track their own careers.

All so true. Yet has it not always been thus? The big difference between now and when Boomers like me were complaining about members of the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation hogging all the high-paying blacksmith jobs is the accelerating pace of change and the growing need for enterprise workers of all ages to understand digital technology and be prepared to adapt.

To use a football analogy, we’ve evolved from a slow and steady running game to a perpetual no-huddle, two-minute drill where the quarterback (you) has to quickly read the defense (the economy) at the line of scrimmage, find a weakness (opportunity), and call a play that offers the greatest odds of success (career move).

Kelly’s parting advice — “just do your best to manage your own career and build a better future” — sounds inadequate in the face of the Darwinian workplace he describes. Yet it’s really all you can do. Pay attention to job and skills trends, be prepared to constantly learn and reinvent yourself, begin (if you haven’t already) to think strategically, and develop entrepreneurial instincts. Doing any or all of these will increase your value, no matter what your age.

Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z — it doesn’t matter with which generation you identify. What matters is that you can  provide value in the modern economy. If you do that, how old you are will matter a lot less.

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