Perhaps sometime in 2019 you either heard, used, or were the target of the phrase “Ok, boomer.”
In some ways it’s a wonder it took this long—the phrase was found to have appeared on Reddit more than a decade ago. But it became a pop culture phenomenon in late 2019, inspired by reactions to a TikTok video in which an unidentified man with white hair complains that “millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome, they don’t ever want to grow up; they think that the Utopian ideals that they have in their youth are somehow going to translate into adulthood.”
The one-liner is not always about publicly shaming actual baby boomers, i.e. Americans born between the years of 1944 and 1964. It’s essentially a verbal or digital eye roll, primarily weaponized against older people by the young, but also used to dismiss anyone with opposing views, typically leaning more toward the conservative and outdated side.
“Ok, boomer” ends a discussion. It is a sign of frustration, and of no longer being willing to converse with or to educate the recipient of it, because either they, or the debate, is a lost cause. And in that sense, it is about as 2019 a phrase you could think of.
Not all boomers
When American talk show radio host Bob Lonsberry tweeted in November of this year that “boomer is the n-word of ageism,” the 60-year-old, who later deleted the tweet, kicked off an interesting debate online about who actually falls under the “boomer” umbrella of “Ok, boomer.”
Boomers typically are defined as Americans born between 1944 and 1964, and they have been blamed for everything from climate change to college debt to a lack of general woke-ness.
Post World War II, “booming” was a good description of the US broadly. The country was indisputably the world’s strongest military power, the gross national product grew from $200 billion to more than $500 billion between 1945 and 1960, and an average of 4 million babies were being born per year. Unemployment and inflation rates were low, wages were relatively high, and Americans flocked to the suburbs to buy homes under a new G.I. Bill that subsidized low-cost mortgages for returning soldiers.
But in a very divided American society, the prosperity was not shared equally. People of color, for example, were frequently disadvantaged economically while dealing with segregation laws, the right to vote, and other forms of political and social injustice. That meant black boomers were raised during a time when they and their parents lacked power in decision making, were not viewed as equal under United States law, and were highly discriminated against in workplaces and in society by their white peers. Does “Ok, boomer” apply to them, too?
“We’re not using ‘boomer’ per se to take down people who were born after World War II in the baby boom,” John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com, told NBC News. “We’re using it in an ironic, often humorous, though sometimes malicious way as a catchall or stand-in for a set of attitudes. A ‘boomer’ [in this case] is an older, angry white male who is shaking his fist at the sky while not being able to take an insult. They have close-minded opinions, are resistant to change—whether it’s new technology or gender inclusivity—and are generally out of touch with how their behaviors affect other people.”
Maybe this is why my mother, a black woman who was born in 1952, doesn’t take much offense to the phrase. Though she was part of the baby boom, her family’s carbon footprint, political views, and attitudes about race didn’t much reflect the things that millennials and Gen-Zers are taking issue with today. And maybe this is also why, as a black millennial, I never felt like I could join in on the “Ok, boomer” trend. To me, the debate seems to lie between young, socially aware white people and their less socially aware parents and grandparents who actually benefitted from the economic and social conditions that ushered the baby boomers into early adulthood.
The “Ok, boomer” argument highlights the common disagreement that my white friends have described to me as a never-ending, pointless quarrel between them and the elders in their family. Oftentimes, the frustrating battle of criticizing elders for being stuck in their old ways, takes place over Thanksgiving dinner or on Facebook posts, and it rarely ever ends in an understanding. Enter “Ok, boomer,” a short catchphrase to shut the dispute down entirely.
Perhaps the one-liner will die out in the next month or maybe it will stay a catchphrase in 2020. Whatever the case may be, collectively, it might be helpful to pay attention to what younger generations are requesting, instead of dismissing their opinions, and in return having them dismiss older generations, with no solution actually being found. “Ok, boomer” is a clear sign that frustration is transcending constructive conversations, which doesn’t bode well for change in the years ahead.