The real meaning of ‘OK Boomer’

It’s not just the elderly that are being dismissed as ‘past it’.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics USA World

Over the past few weeks, the ‘OK Boomer’ meme has gone viral, leading to an offline epidemic of earnest commentary. The whippersnappers of ‘Generation Z’ have taken to TikTok – a social-media platform that seems to be about sharing chill-ironic lip-synching video-selfies – with a flurry of music, artwork, and follow-on merch responding to criticisms of the youth of today with the admonition that older generations should STFU.

Being of the generation that grew up with VHS, audio tapes and landlines, I don’t really get the TikTok thing. It’s cute and funny when my kids use it, and even ‘OK Boomer’ has its moments of mirth. One viral example is a video of white-haired man in a baseball cap and polo shirt droning on that, ‘The millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome, they don’t ever want to grow up’, and a studious young woman deftly designing a sign in response that reads ‘OK Boomer’.

So far, fair enough. The only thing more annoying than young adults blaming their parents for everything is the idea that kids have a responsibility to socialise themselves. Peter Pan syndrome among millenials is the product of a culture that is persistently infantilising young people, hobbling their opportunities to develop independence and blunting their aspiration to grow up. From infancy, today’s kids are trained to regard every slight or criticism as a threat to their own – or somebody else’s – mental health or self-esteem. Young children are discouraged from playing outside without adult supervision. Older adolescents are schooled in the importance of seeking professional support for all the emotional difficulties and life transitions that come with growing up. It is not surprising that they react against being labelled as ‘snowflakes’ by the very society that has instructed them in this way of thinking and being. OK Boomer, indeed.

If only we could leave it at that. Unfortunately, this silly meme has been bounced into mainstream political and media debate to provide yet another opportunity for self-righteous claims that older generations have stolen their children’s future. Politicians, commentators and campaigners are relentlessly transmitting the message that adults have messed up the world for their kids. ‘OK Boomer’ deftly captures the sentiment that everything adults say is not worthy of debate, only summary dismissal.

As such, the meme merely follows a script that has been played out in a range of present-day political dramas – including those around climate change, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump – to shut up those whose values, attitudes and priorities are seen to represent ‘the past’. It is a script routinely deployed by people of all ages, who are so wedded to the rightness of their own cause that they arrogantly appropriate the voice of ‘future generations’ to put their claims beyond debate.

That is the spirit in which Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old MP for New Zealand’s Green Party, said ‘OK Boomer’ in a parliamentary debate about climate change last week. It wasn’t a joke, she explained in the Guardian:

‘My “OK boomer” comment in parliament was off-the-cuff, albeit symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations set to inherit ever-amplifying problems in an ever-diminishing window of time. It was a response – as is par-for-course – to a barrage of heckling in a parliamentary chamber that at present turns far too many regular folks off from engaging in politics.’

Leaving aside the question of what Swarbrick might mean by ‘regular folk’ – presumably, right-thinking graduates – it is worth noting the speed with which a silly meme has been filled with such deep meaning.

Proclaiming that the meme marks ‘the end of friendly generational relations’, the New York Times reports that: ‘Now it’s war: Gen Z has finally snapped over climate change and financial inequality.’ The teenagers currently milking the ‘OK Boomer’ meme – in some cases, for money – are elevated to the status of prophets, engaged in ‘their own little form of protest against a system they feel is rigged’.

Eighteen-year-old college student Nina Kasman is flogging the slogan on a range of single-use tat – from stickers and socks to water bottles and notebooks. She told the NYT that she was driven to producing OK Boomer merch ‘because there’s not a lot that I can personally do to reduce the price of college… which was much cheaper for older generations who then made it more expensive’. From there, she extrapolates:

‘There’s not much I can personally do to restore the environment, which was harmed due to the corporate greed of older generations. There’s not much I can personally do to undo political corruption, or fix congress so it’s not mostly old white men boomers who don’t represent the majority of generations.’

Frustration with ‘the system’ is channelled not towards political action but into making a quick buck. These young entrepreneurs seem impervious to the contradictions within their arguments, to say the least.

Twenty-year-old college student Jonathan Williams is credited with writing and producing the ‘anthem’ of the OK Boomer ‘movement’. The song ‘goes out to all the 65-plus crowd on SoundCloud’ and is peppered with the refrain ‘old ladies suck’. But it’s not really aimed at old people, the NYT assures us:

‘In the end, “Boomer” is just a state of mind. Mr Williams said anyone can be a boomer – with the right attitude. “You don’t like change, you don’t understand new things especially related to technology, you don’t understand equality”, he said. “Being a boomer is just having that attitude, it can apply to whoever is bitter toward change.”’

Swarbrick has also used this argument that ‘Boomer is a state of mind’. This, apparently, lets self-styled generation warriors off the hook: they have nothing against old people, so long as they agree with young people! And if not all young people parrot the same script about stolen futures and impending doom – which they don’t – they can be dismissed as Boomers, too.

All of which shows that, at the end of the day, this debate has very little to do with actual generational differences. As I argue in my book, Stop Mugging Grandma, the ‘generation war’ that supposedly defines our times is not about a clash between young and old. Instead, it masks disagreements over politics, values and ideas about the future. It has the character of an unseemly fancy-dress competition, in which claims-makers compete to see who can appear most like the twentysomething ‘voice of the future’, thereby appropriating the hopes and fears of young people, and using them for their own ends.

The generation war is a proxy, lip-synched conflict, in which the more young people are talked about, the less they are actually listened to.

Jennie Bristow‘s Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ And Why Boomer-Blaming Won’t Solve Anything, is published by Yale University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Comments

Howard Taylor

20th November 2019 at 3:28 am

What a wonderful thing youth is, such a shame to waste it on somebody so young.

Gerry Pearce

17th November 2019 at 7:37 pm

Hmm … I foresee a awful lot of disappointed grandkids come this Christmas …

Anne Wareham

17th November 2019 at 3:35 pm

People who hate change like Brexit?

Ok Boommer

14th November 2019 at 4:29 pm

Yeah, but it is ok to make fun of our generation because you all do drugs, kill, prostitute and this and that, I love my parents all and dear to my heart BUT they want “family time” so they can insult our generation. I like my grandparents and they also want family time but it’s to talk about their lives and stuff like that. They don’t insult us for stupid stereotypes. And you’re generation are a bunch of hypocrites because you critizise our generation for being undisplined and unrespectful to others but you insult them as crybabies.. ok boomer

Skeptic 1972

14th November 2019 at 5:30 pm

So, your parents want to give you advice – and you refuse to listen because it “insults” you: it implies you might (oh horror) be doing something wrong. Your grandparents want to tell them their life story and experiences — obviously, as they must be quite old, this is your last chance to hear it — but you find that just too boring.

The only, if sufficient, excuse for your foolishness is that youth is always foolish and never listens to the older generations. We have Sumerian tablets ca. 2000 BC complaining about kids these days (not caring about the gods, not honoring their parents, wanting only pleasure, etc., etc.).

But you prove, once more, what Agatha Christy’s Miss Marple said: “young people think old people are fools — old people KNOW young people are fools.”

Ok Boommer

6th March 2020 at 9:07 pm

Are you kidding me? I said that my grandparents told me their life stories that i love the listen, i said the difference is my parents insult us as terrorists and other things we aren’t..

Ok Boommer

6th March 2020 at 9:09 pm

Also god is not my interest because i have other things to do like study…

Ed Turnbull

18th November 2019 at 10:12 am

Question: is English not your first language? I only ask because your comment’s so poorly written I struggle to get the gist of it. But here’s what I *think* you’re saying (correct me if I’m wrong, I’ve no desire to mischaracterise your position): you see Boomers’ criticism of younger generations as hypocrisy because “you all do drugs, kill, prostitute and this and that”. Well, I’m a Boomer (the genuine article – born during the post WWII baby boom) and I do none of the things you allege. Does that, then, give me moral authority to criticise Millenials Gen Z etc? Sure feels like it does, at least if one follows the somewhat ephemeral ‘logic’ of your comment.

You also claim to love your parents and grandparents, yet at the same time despise that they want ‘family time’ where they’ll ‘insult’ your generation. Maybe what you perceive as ‘insult’ is merely their trying to impart some of the wisdom they’ve accumulated over the years. Intent is important, is it not?

Let this Boomer give you a fragment of the wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years: treasure *every* moment you have with your parents and grandparents, for a time will come (and it always arrives far sooner than you expect) when they’re no longer here.

Ok Boommer

6th March 2020 at 8:55 pm

Yes it is.. but i speak french and Portuguese and since i live in france i am not speaking english mostly.. i said your generation insults our generation as drug dealers, terrorists and other things, you’re right in the way that i constructed the comment wrong… What i was try to say is that your generation is insulting us as things we don’t usually do, i never did drugs.. but when we say ok boomer.. you have a problem with that.. I don’t think that was quite equal. I then said my grandparents where good people because they don’t insult us because they know we are from a different generation, I like when they talk about their days, I am not targeting them but the boomer generation.. or my parents, they insult our generation because we got it easier.. we might have but it’s still sad you are going to keep saying that over and over again.. just imagine if my grandparents did that to them, they would feel the same.. the things I don’t have a problem getting insulted but they do.

Okay BOOMER

14th November 2019 at 4:44 am

Hypocrisy is only acceptable from older folks then, I take it? I mean, look at these comments. They’ve been doing this to us since the second we were born. Constantly dismissing all of us with flippant insults and dismissive language, accusing us of being easily offended crybabies and refusing to accept our opinions as our own. The second we do the same thing, you all freak out, write articles, try thinking up new and creative insults. You are all so sad. So… Immensely pathetic.

A widdle insult and you all play the victim card? Golly, you’re awfully sensitive aren’t you?

Psh. Reap what you sow, boomer.

Jerry Owen

14th November 2019 at 10:03 am

No need to get hysterical .. calm down !

Ok Boommer

14th November 2019 at 4:19 pm

You seem to say that because you can critizise the truth

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