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 for profit 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. 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.
First published by spiked,14 November 2019.