OK BoomerMar 02, 2020 12:08PM ● By Melanie Wiseman
Intergenerational tension isn’t bad. It’s how you address it.
I was dumbfounded when Social Security came up in casual conversation and my 36-year-old niece sarcastically interjected, “You’re welcome.”
Translation: She feels she’ll never see it and I’ll be living on her dime.
I was taken aback by her sharp, phantom finger-pointing, but I still listened with empathy as she talked about her ample college debt and the high cost of housing and health insurance. Was she actually insinuating they were my fault? I didn’t know where it was coming from then, but I get it now.
On December 1, CBS Sunday Morning’s Faith Salie, 48, delivered a cheeky rendition of the catchphrase, “Ok, Boomer” as a fashionable and political step up from “Whatever,” or “Talk to the hand,” directed toward older people.
This generational chasm of frustration, tension and a general “enough is enough” by younger people gained tremendous momentum over the past year. Although generational finger-pointing is not a new concept, social media casts the combative yet dismissive meme “Ok, Boomer” into a global viral phenomenon. The New York Times claimed the meme “marks the end of friendly generational relations.”
“Ok, Boomer” memes (an amusing image, video or text that spreads within a culture usually through the Internet), social media songs, YouTube videos and merchandise added fuel to the fire. Peter Kuli, 19, who created a remix of the song that started it all, said, “I think the internet is finally allowing people to feel like they have a voice and an outlet to critique the generations who got us into this position.”
“Ok, Boomer” mocks and dismisses a person from the Baby Boom generation (and older people in general) as out of touch, close-minded, resistant to change and part of the problem. While many Baby Boomers were connected to the youth counterculture of the 1960-70s, they have since been blamed in recent years by younger generations for a variety of societal woes.
“‘Ok, Boomer’ says, ‘Keep talking old person. We’re not even going to roll our eyes at you. We look past you to a future we’re going to have to fix ourselves—one we inherited from you: climate change and disappearing species, crippling debt and a crumbling democracy,” said Salie.
The blame game, again
Salie’s editorial stirred up such a firestorm among seniors that the following Sunday morning, author and radio host Bill Flanagan, 64, was given equal time to respond.
In essence, Flanagan argued that no generation gets it all right, and no generation fixes everything.
“I grew up under a barrage of insults from the World War II generation,” said Flanagan. “They continually reminded us they were raised in the Depression, defeated Hitler and now we have everything handed to us.”
He admitted that climate change has gotten worse, but Boomers inherited pollution, nuclear weapons and racial injustice.
“The world was kind of in rough shape when we arrived,” he said. “But our generation can take credit for making big cities livable again, revolutionizing communication, shrinking crime, poverty and violence, and advancing rights for women, African Americans and the LGBTQ community in ways never dreamed of in the past.”
Political writer Bhaskar Sunkara, 30, said it’s time to ditch the meme because it isn’t directed at the right people.
With half of those over 65 having less than $25,000 in savings, a division by class makes more sense than by generations.
“Energy should be directed at big politicians or big CEOs, not people who don’t have a lot of power and wealth,” said Sunkara.
Sociologist and author Jennie Bristow conjectured that the “Boomer blaming” is largely a symbolic discussion and not really about Baby Boomers. She argued that distress from younger people has become “misplaced” anxiety about older people, which some would consider ageism. Bristow believes the solution to the generational war is to stop fighting it.
“The more people are invited to see issues in terms of intergenerational conflict, the more the conflict picks up,” Bristow said. “When young people are told constantly that their future has been taken away from them by older generations, it’s not really surprising that they begin thinking that way.”
What young people mean
“My take on ‘Ok, Boomer’ is that younger people often feel that older people don’t take them seriously,” said Brenda Wilhelm, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at Colorado Mesa University. “I see this more as a way to say, ‘Hold up, we’ve got something to say here.’”
Wilhelm said younger people are entering a world where their angst is reasonable, especially when watching politicians who seem unable or unwilling to do anything about these problems.
“I think young people are reasonably pointing out that their elders do not have all the answers,” said Wilhelm.
And that’s okay. Norman Ryder’s theory of demographic metabolism describes the process by which societies change through the generations. Younger people enter society with fresh eyes, which is an important mechanism of social change.
“‘Ok, Boomer’ may just be the latest way for a younger generation to try to make that clear to an older generation,” said Wilhelm. “However, with the advent of social media, no one really controls the phrase or how it is used. I’m just not sure the negative feelings and generation gap are as big as the media would have us believe.”
Wilhelm hopes the wisdom of their years would allow Boomers to empathize with young people today, understand where they are coming from and, if they are in positions to do so, help them create a better world.
To say that one generation cannot understand the other is false. Each has much to learn from the other. Intergenerational programs and causes combine people of varying ages, life experiences, classes and views, showing that people from across perceived divides have much to gain from one another. Embracing communication fosters positive understanding, diminishes stereotypes, and empowers respect.
“I think opportunities and encouragement for people to have meaningful interactions across generations would be a start,” said Wilhelm. “Maybe social media posts about those interactions could result in a more compassionate meme.”