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Age Discrimination in the Workplace – Not “Ok Boomer” at all?
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Age Discrimination in the Workplace – Not “Ok Boomer” at all?

Long a popular meme on social media, Gen Z and millennials express their criticism of the baby boomer generation by cynically saying “Ok Boomer”. In doing so, they respond to the condescending comments that older generations sometimes gave them: the young were accused of being work-shy, unrealistic, effeminate and of setting the wrong priorities (see the alleged love of millennials for expensive avocado toast). The term found its way from smartphones to analogue life through the New Zealand Green Party politician Chloe Swarbrick . She threw the term at an older colleague who tried to heckly interrupt her during a climate crisis debate in parliament.

Some believe that the phrase “Ok Boomer” is not just a criticism of a world view that is perhaps no longer up-to-date (e.g. reluctance to have an underage climate protection activist hold up an uncomfortable mirror). But that younger people are generally of the opinion that older people should no longer have anything to report. The “boomers” mean people in the 55+ age group.

Age is one of the characteristics that are particularly protected by the legal system, in particular by the Equal Treatment Act, also in working life. Older workers are often at risk of long periods of unemployment if they lose their job. In the case of restructuring, companies often give priority to cutting the jobs of long-serving and therefore “expensive” employees. It is evident that the generational conflict does not stop at the world of work.

But how would it be if younger employees in Austrian companies commented on statements made by their older colleagues with “Ok Boomer”? It will depend on the context whether this could be qualified as age discrimination. This should be illustrated by two examples:

Example 1: An older employee makes a comment that may not be entirely up-to-date in a team meeting. A younger employee replies “Ok Boomer” because it’s the latest meme right now. Everyone involved knows it’s a hoax, and there’s generally a culture of mutual respect within the company.

Example 2: An older worker is consistently ignored in team meetings. If he tries to make a constructive contribution or to throw in something, the (younger) manager always rolls his eyes demonstratively or says something like “You should maybe let your children explain that to you.” Another day, the older colleague walks past the coffee kitchen and hears the managing director saying to other team members that “the old bag costs us too much because it has been with the company forever. Actually, he doesn’t check anything anymore.” When the older colleague wants to make a comment at an internal product presentation, the managing director interrupts him with “Yes, yes, Ok Boomer.” The rest of the team laughs. Two days later, the older employee receives the notice of termination.

While in example 1 there may not be any reason to suspect discrimination , in example 2 this may in fact be different . If the older employee has made no other mistakes and has basically done his job satisfactorily, the suspicion arises that he was treated worse because of his age and was later even dismissed. And the statement “Ok Boomer” in the overall view would at least be an indication that the managing director could have had a problem with age.

On this basis, one could first take action against the derogatory comments that referred to age and, if necessary, claim damages within the meaning of the Equal Treatment Act . The pronounced termination in turn could be based on

  • Equal Treatment Act : in the case of discrimination when the employment relationship is terminated, one can contest the termination oneself or demand compensation; or

  • Social violation according to § 105 Abs 3 Z 2 ArbVG (only possible in companies with at least 5 employees): with the argument that older employees have little chance of finding a new job of equal value and are dependent on the previous salary, and that there were no personal or operational reasons for the termination and they are therefore ineffective be; or

  • a frowned upon motive within the meaning of Section 105 Paragraph 3 Z 1 lit i ArbVG, e.g. if the employee wanted to apply for partial retirement and was therefore terminated by the employer (termination due to the employee’s obviously not unjustified assertion of claims from the employment relationship),

fight.

Companies should therefore train their employees accordingly and stop discriminatory behavior as soon as possible, also with regard to new trends. Failure to do so could result in lawsuits and/or a bad reputation for age discrimination. And both can – in different ways – have very unpleasant consequences for employers.