But Roberts wasn’t typing a tweet. This was a meeting of the highest court in the land, and its nine justices — older federal employees ranging from in age from 52 to 86 — were hearing a case about the standard that older federal employees must meet when trying to prove age discrimination.
The case, Babb v. Wilkie, centers on Noris Babb, a pharmacist for the Department of Veterans Affairs who sued her employer, claiming that she was denied pay raises and promotions partly because of her age. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act requires those working in the private sector or for state or local governments to show that age caused the discriminatory action.
Babb’s lawyers have argued that differences between the law’s federal and private-sector provisions mean that government workers only have to prove that age was among several factors that led to the negative action, making it easier for them to sue their employer.
Roberts was skeptical, quizzing Babb’s attorney, Roman Martinez, and becoming the first person in Supreme Court history to invoke the “OK boomer” meme as the chamber chuckled.
“So calling somebody a ‘boomer’ and considering them for a position would be actionable?” Roberts asked shortly after introducing the phrase.
Yes, Martinez replied, if the comment “was one of the factors going into this decision, I think it absolutely would be covered.”
Roberts warned Martinez that his position “is going to become, really, just a regulation of speech in the workplace.”
The chief justice’s line of questioning was just the latest milestone in the glib retort’s short life span, which began on TikTok and echoed through high school before migrating to the pages of the country’s largest newspapers and the halls of New Zealand’s Parliament.
Its purveyors, most often millennials and members of Gen Z, employ it as shorthand, a withering reply to condescension from older generations, notably, baby boomers. The phrase has also been labeled the latest shot fired in an escalating generation war, in which the front lines are social media comment sections and relations have frayed over issues such as student loan debt and climate change.
But if “OK boomer” has been weaponized, Roberts may have just stolen its ammunition — at least, according to Vice News, which declared that the judge had “just killed” the meme.
“It’s hard to imagine a more Boomer institution than the Supreme Court,” the article began.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who argued that “the feds should be the leader” in fighting discrimination, had his own hypothetical to present.
“I’m trying to think of where could this come up,” he said, before asking whether an employer would be allowed to say, “I’m not sure, but I certainly don’t want people who are over the age of 82.”
Breyer, who is 81, may or may not have been asking for a friend.