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‘OK Boomer’ Isn’t Really About Age

A joke about generational conflict marks, instead, a division of status

As Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of New Zealand Parliament with the country’s Green Party, spoke about a proposed Zero Carbon Bill that would “set a target of zero carbon emissions for the country by 2050,” per CNN, she was heckled from the benches.

No real issue there. Anglophone democracies are known for their sometimes boisterous legislative chambers. Swarbrick, well within her rights to fire back at whoever loudly thought the climate emergency wasn’t worth discussion, chose a clipped, buzzy, two-word phrase: “OK Boomer.Before anyone could react, she’d picked up her remarks from where she was interrupted.

Reports didn’t mention who had spoken up during Swarbrick’s statement; all we know is that he did so while she described how her generation would bear the brunt of extreme environmental disruption. While many cheered her comeback, a reliable troop of concern trolls surfaced to call it uncivil. They defended the unseen and unnamed fellow who had started the exchange, one unfolding with a response I’d observe as rather polite for the setting.

As the footage went viral, Swarbrick refused to backpedal, even writing a Facebook post that nettled the Baby Boomers for their humorlessness in all things.  

Today I have learnt that responding succinctly and in perfect jest to somebody heckling you about *your age* as you…

Posted by Chlöe Swarbrick on Monday, November 4, 2019

While some of the uproar at the derogatory usage of “Boomer” is the usual inflammatory victimhood performance, there is a worrying edge to the trend that’s not so easily dismissed. Conservative radio host Bob Lonsberry committed a classic Twitter blunder by comparing “Boomer” to the N-word this week, though he also brought in the specter of ageism. On that end, some lefties are in agreement: To sneeringly paint a generation that marched for civil rights and against war with the Boomer brush is unfair, they say, and a toxic form of prejudice.

To that, millennials and Gen Z of all stripes have been known to reply that Boomer is a mindset, not an age — which saddles us with the new problem of identifying a backwards political cohort by a term originally used to encompass those born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s.

As you’d expect of any bitter internet struggle, we’ve got a few crosscurrents going here, guaranteeing that nobody understands one another. At a base level, there’s the variable import of “Boomer” and “OK Boomer”: Depending on your temperament, you can read it as a genuine factional attack (anybody older than 55 is an enemy), a weary and disinterested sigh for occasions when argument isn’t worthwhile (Swarbick termed it a “simple summarization of collective exhaustion”) or a low-effort provocation that pays off instantly (the “Boomer” rejoinder is less of an ideological claim than a trap for the type of person who wants to be triggered by it). These folks fall victim to the first, hyper-literal reading, whereas those actually tossing the Boomer label around as an epithet almost always do so with the latter, stealthier inflections.

In that light, the “Boomer is an ageist slur” crowd do themselves a double disservice. First, they’ve given a rise to the youth trying to get one out of them, and second, they trivialize the very real harms of ageism beyond these petty online squabbles: “OK Boomer” may indeed contribute to a damaging stereotype of the elderly as “selfish, addled, unconcerned about the future,” as the New York Times had it in an article on the World Health Organization’s plan to study the effects of ageism. But it does so with the target’s help, since it is only ever a reaction to their smug, hostile, ignorant jawing. What’s more, it isn’t the same as companies discriminating against gray-haired job applicants and targeting older employees for layoffs, nor is it comparable to the dehumanization and abuse of elders by unethical retirement homes or their families.

For anyone content to admit the elasticity of language, it seems fair to allow a tweak of the word “Boomer” to decouple it from the matter of age, thereby relieving it from the ageism critique. Right?

Except then we continue to avoid the question of why we’re using “Boomer,” a chronology-loaded nickname, to suggest something besides (or in addition to) an individual’s stage in life vis-à-vis the calendar year.

An unfortunate weakness to the “Boomer” jab is that it opens you up to the “Not All Boomers” defense — and this begins to scratch at an underlying confusion of grudges. Thanks to the Great Recession and widening financial inequality, millennials and zoomers can wind up viewing the intergenerational divide as more economic than cultural. A New Yorker piece on ageism notes that Boomers, as a demographic, have undeniably lined their pockets: “Thirty years ago, households headed by those over 65 were 10 times as wealthy as those under 35; now they’re 50 times as wealthy.”

As a shorthand, then, “Boomer” means you are privileged, sitting high and mighty, probably while claiming the rest of us are oversensitive and don’t work hard enough. You’re invested in the status quo, since it put you there. You’re the Marxist conception of the bourgeoisie. Bernie Sanders, a socialist, is 78. The kids aren’t pulling the “OK Boomer” card on him, and that’s not because he’s technically too old to be one. 

Now, it’s not as if we’re obliged to scold the TikTok teens who popularized “OK Boomer” for undermining class analysis with a trollish catchphrase that comes at the expense of their elders. This would be a counterproductive and cringingly millennial move, as the meme is hardly aspiring to academic, historical status. Those offended by it really do need to lighten up and take a joke, as they have no doubt advised others to do in the past, and while the ageism complaint is partially valid, it’s clearly not a hill to die on. Let the young be young while they are.

Remember that virality puts an expiration date on everything. The very fact of the take you’re reading right this minute means the trend is already passé. For god’s sake, even Boomers know about “Boomers” these days. Rest assured, you’re currently being mocked in a strange and wonderful new fashion that has yet to register on your wavelength. That’s how the world turns.