#OKBoomer as a recent trending topic grabbed my attention on two levels. If you’re not paying attention to this burn, you should. It’s relevant to society today, including the workplace.
From my perspective, the phrase “OK Boomer” made me, a native Oklahoman, first recall the history of the 1889 land rush. White settlers, referred to as Boomers and Sooners, entered Indian Territory prior to the official opening to claim land.
The meme #OKBoomer is a pithy pushback from Millennials (ages 25-39) and Gen Z (24 and younger) against the Boomers (ages 55-73) about today’s generational tensions. These Boomers are pushy in a different way than the land-grabbing Boomers and Sooners of the 1800s.
To many of those younger than 40, today’s Boomers are self-centered adults who have downplayed or even ignored their responsibilities in recent years to protect the safety and well-being of young people, the environment, and the economy.
By contrast, many of the Boomers, particularly the older cohort who still relish their role as successful activists in the 1960s, consider themselves powerful “anti-establishment” influencers for today’s times.
Hey Boomers, rather than defend ourselves and clap back, we should show empathy, especially considering the facts.
The world has become a better place over the years. If you doubt it, check out the book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling. You also can watch Hans Rosling’s TED Talk.
Yet, we’re also facing looming crises with our fast-warming planet, rising inequality, exploding debt levels, school shootings, polarization in politics, increasing levels of misinformation, the role of technology in society, and other wicked matters.
Many of these weighty issues have a larger adverse impact on younger people. For instance, consider US school shootings, which numbered 45 in the first 46 weeks of 2019.
Students now routinely do active shooter drills so they’ll know how to protect themselves against the real risk of another student or someone else opening fire in their classrooms. By comparison, the early Boomers did duck-and-cover drills in case of a potential atomic attack, which instilled a different type of fear into the psyche. (By the time I as a later Boomer started school, no catastrophes had happened and the drills had long ended.)
And you need to take two more steps: 1) using your ability to understand what others may be thinking and how those thoughts may be different than your own, which is called “Theory of Mind,” and 2) being empathetic.
Even though we humans are wired for empathy, it’s not a skill that all of us have fully developed. To be empathetic, you’ve got to care about others and also be able to show compassion.
From a practical perspective, when you’re conversing with individuals different from you, you can show more empathy by taking these three actions:
- Listen carefully to what others say. While doing so, try to put yourself in their shoes and understand their perspectives as well as their context. And Boomers, tread carefully when you’re discussing the impact of student debt, which has hurt younger generations more than us. For example, the student debt load combined with the fallout from the big recession of a decade ago has hindered millennials’ ability to save. As a result, many of them have delayed getting married, buying their first home and having kids, according to this Business Insider article.
- Ask permission to ask questions before talking in any details. This act of asking puts people more at ease, which gets them to slow down and really think. (For the record, no one has ever answered “No” to my question, “Can I ask you a question?”) When you signal that you want to ask questions and learn more, people open up. They’re more willing to answer probing questions, which elicits more insights for you and them. The conversation can then become deeper and more meaningful rather than staying on the surface.
- Avoid giving unsolicited advice. Recognize that when you give advice that people didn’t ask for and may not want, you run the risk of alienating them. They could feel annoyed or even threatened, especially if the advice isn’t applicable to their personal circumstances or even contrary. In my experiences, especially now in the Deep South where the patriarch society still looms large, white Boomer men often dispense unsought advice to those they deem deserving of it, meaning those they perceive to be lower in status than them—namely women of all ages, people of color of all ages, and all younger people. And most of the time when I get “guidance” from Mr. John, Mr. Tom, Mr. Mike, and others, it feels misguided. I’m sure many other subjects view these “words of wisdom” with skepticism.
When you practice these actions, you are showing others that you see them, hear them, and are connecting with them. And just as importantly, you also are being respectful.
Having a voice and being respected. That’s valuable for anyone, regardless of age.
And last, but not least, Boomers, please don’t bully the young ‘uns at work by telling them that you can make critical comments about them all you want but if they say “Ok Boomer” to you, you can claim age discrimination. (Yes, under employment law, those 40 and older are protected from age discrimination actions on the job, including age-related insults.) For more about this inequity, read this article in The Conversation.