Generational conflicts are certainly not a new phenomenon. Even the Greek philosopher Socrates was unhappy with the younger generation and criticized them harshly:
‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders’.
In the case of the phrase ‘OK Boomer’, it is the younger generation criticizing their elders. Today they have a new way to do it: through memes and online culture. Students know nothing about improving politics? OK Boomer. Young people today are doing nothing except using their gadgets? OK Boomer.
Simplified, OK Boomer is a way of telling the baby boomer generation, born between the 1940s and 1960s, to shut up. The phrase is generally used by younger people who are fed up with being told that they are doing everything wrong. It also expresses a deep frustration in trying to convey their political ideas to the older generation. It is a way of ending a discussion which does not lead anywhere.
Studies have highlighted the following for a long time: Millennials are rather pessimistic when it comes to their future. Declining trust in politicians to solve current problems, fear of unemployment and most importantly, the feeble climate protection laws, are just some of reasons for their concerns. Because the baby boomer generation are the politicians and economists of today, they are naturally blamed for the current state of our world.
To add to the frustration, young people are often not taken seriously when expressing their political views to the older generation. In some cases, they are even blamed for raising their voice. A famous example of this is Greta Thunberg who polarizes thinking with her activism because her demands often equate to restrictions. It is especially the boomer generation that seems to have a problem with her and highlights her young age as a discrediting factor.
Naturally, there has already been an outcry of baby boomers claiming that the phrase is a form of discrimination. Radio host Bob Lonsberry, 60, has even gone as far as tweeting: ‘boomer is the n-word of ageism’, for which he was harshly criticized. One thing is clear: the somewhat humorous way of dealing with the generational conflict has not been well received. But why does it provoke so much? Millennials have experienced ridicule their whole lifetime, it is only natural for them to have finally found a linguistic way to fight back.
To understand why the phrase has become so popular, it is important to acknowledge that this generational conflict is not one-sided. When I was younger I used to think that I belonged to the millennial generation. They were widely talked about, believed to have destroyed almost every industry, and scorned for their affliction to buying overly-expensive avocado toast while not being able to pay for rent — they were the human embodiment of failure. T
Today I have realized that I, in fact, belong to Generation Z — but that makes things only negligibly better. Politicians and elders love to brand my generation as politically uninterested, vain and a bunch of sensitive ‘snowflakes‘ whose utopian ideas are causing them inconvenience. The generation of ‘digital natives’ are often looked down upon for their excessive use of mobile phones and social media. Nevertheless, this is our ‘new normal’. The world constantly changes and that inevitably leads to conflicts.
So can saying OK Boomer be regarded as ageism? Yes, but also no. Even if it could seem so, the phrase is actually not about age in particular, it is mainly about social status and mindset. The question we should rather ask ourselves is how to have a productive generational discourse. Saying ‘OK Boomer’ is admittedly fun, but cannot be our answer to the existential worries of young people. It is a passive-aggressive knockout argument that prevents any open discourse. Parents talking to their children is always a good indicator of how our world and society are changing. At the moment this is looking gloomy. A hardening conservative stance in society against a newly-found activism from young people certainly do not mix well.
I would argue that discourse is exactly what we need, which is why I am going to start. Yes, my generation has grown up with vast possibilities and an influx of information at every given moment. We have been constantly subjected to the internet and digital life. All of these things can be our downfall or blessing, depending on how we learn to deal with them. What we need is an accepting boomer generation that can guide us through these changes, without being condescending. The same goes for us. Respecting what previous generations have achieved is an essential part of understanding and learning from each other.
Deep down there is also some common ground. Boomers have experienced the invigorating sense of revolution as much as we have. Once they were the ones rebelling against their parents, fighting for climate protection, green policies, and standing up against the use of nuclear weapons. The rock and roll generation has helped to shape our world as it is today. Whether we like this fact or not is our choice; but we are the next generation to continue shaping this world.