For the first time in history five generations coexist at work. From the breakroom to the boardroom, the silent generation (now in their mid-70s to 80s), baby boomers (60s to early 70s), Generation X (early 40s to 50s), millennials (late 20s to 30s) and Generation Z (just entering their 20s) must get along. Susan Weinstock, AARP vice president, cites her organization’s 2018 study “Mentorship and the Value of a Multigenerational Workforce” when she says employees “like to work together no matter the generation.”
Anyone who knows the infamous meme “OK, boomer” might doubt that.
In a recent video rant, a gray-haired dude fumed: “Millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome… they think that the utopian ideals that they have in their youth are somehow going to translate into adulthood.”
The younger generation’s response? “OK, boomer.” Forty-four million times and counting.
Since that first retort, “OK, boomer” has morphed into a sarcastic comeback to anyone over 30 deemed at fault for ignoring global burning (more ominous than climate change), economic instability, or any other 21st-century crisis. “OK, boomer” is not so much a rallying cry but an exasperated mumble, often accompanied by an eye roll.
Did boomers ruin the world for the rest of us, as some claim? Excuse my can’t-we-all-get-along Generation X response, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Baby boomers gave us the sexual revolution and sky-high divorce rates, hippies and yuppies, Earth Day and toxic waste sites, not to mention the past four US presidents. Boomers are an enormous, complex group, what one demographer likened to “the pig in the python” — a population bulge moving through life’s stages and affecting everything and everyone.
Understandably, some perceive “OK, boomer” as fightin’ words, an ageist “shut up.” All in good fun, say the eye-rollers.
This intergenerational feud has been waging as long as there have been “the olds” and “the youngs.” Around 440 B.C. Socrates claimed, “Children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders.” Centuries later came Mark Twain’s well-known insight: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Even our beloved uphill-both-ways-to school “Greatest Generation” probably didn’t seem so great to their parents; baby boomers were “long hairs” to theirs. Generation Xers were “slackers” and millennials “snowflakes.” Is Generation Z made up of “whiners” or truth-speakers? Depends who you ask.
Baby boomers gave us the concept “workaholic;” my generation responded with “work/life balance.” The yin and yang of old and young continues. Some boomers can be out of touch, but so can all of us. Age doesn’t matter as much as taking an interest in social and global problems and listening to each other. Race, gender, and ability affect us much more than the generation we were born into, though marketers would have us believe otherwise. Tune in to Pandora Radio’s Bob Dylan station and you’ll get hearing aid ads; Chance the Rapper station generates Mustang ads.
UW-Eau Claire’s Advising, Retention and Career Center, where I’m an academic adviser, employs four generations among our 50 staff members on a campus teeming with Z’s. My students are simultaneously much more confident than I was (about travelling the world, standing up for themselves and others, and overall identity) and much more anxious than I was (about choosing the right major, landing an internship and graduating in four years). The stakes are higher for Generation Z, given the tremendous increase in tuition since the mid-1980’s when I was a student. The cost of “finding oneself” was nearly free for me; now the pressure to succeed is much greater because safety nets are smaller.
Recently I joined the 21st Century and bought an iPhone. I was never so glad to work with 20-somethings. It’s not just technology I want assistance with but ways of thinking. That AARP study supports how younger workers bring creativity and unique perspectives to the job, while older workers are potential teachers who make the workplace more productive. I appreciate millennials and Z’s for their boldness and integrity. Millennials switch jobs when they are unhappy; Z’s wouldn’t take them in the first place. Different mindset, different job market. In 1994 I was pleased to land any job, and like my parents’ Greatest Generation: I will keep at it until retirement.
A colleague and I have worked at UW-EC in different roles for over 25 years. One recent morning we reminisced about our first years in the profession. When we were hired by baby boomers, we were decades younger than most of our peers.
“We kept our mouths shut and paid attention,” Ms. Gen X said. “We respected our … elders.” We giggled at her word choice, but we both knew exactly what she meant.
“We’re a dying breed,” I said, words I never ever expected to come out of this mouth. We giggled some more.
“I own shoes older than you,” a colleague once uttered in my direction. Back then, I laughed and told him, “That’s a long time to have the same pair.”
Now I’m the one sometimes thinking his phrase about my co-workers. I would never say it, no more than someone would blurt out to me: “Do you even know what Snapchat is?”
I’d wager “OK, boomer” is no more offensive than the 1960’s mantra, “You can’t trust anyone over 30.”
When I consider the aging people in my life I hear, “OK, boomers!!” — in a much more positive tone than the buzz-storming meme.
I think of my husband, who in his 20s was active in the Boston Draft Resistance and later influenced three generations of students at UW-Eau Claire. Some of them became famous authors, but most put into action the empathy they learned from reading literature and paying attention to the world. He helped create the university’s first courses emphasizing writers of color and women writers. Twelve years ago he retired from a department in which a gray-haired poet mattered less and less.
I think of my friend, who is still an activist at 70-something. She recently responded to a Facebook post: “Woke? I don’t know that phrase.” Ironic, since she is more alert to social injustice than people a third her age. And she has been doing something about it — from publicly protesting (nuclear weapons and union-busting) to privately advocating (against prejudice and inequality) — for much longer than I’ve been alive.
Next Saturday: Nickolas Butler discovers the benefits of cross-country skiing.