The catchphrase “OK boomer” (which originated in a 2018 TikTok video as a response to an unidentified older man’s criticism of young people) has gone viral on social media. It is somewhat similar to the age-old “whatever” dismissal, but is specifically aimed at a demographic of people usually defined as being born from 1946–64 and known as baby boomers. More accurately, the meme targets a mindset that is not inherent to, but was socially ingrained in many people of that generation. It is also deployed mostly by two specific demographics: millennials and the generation succeeding them, Generation Z (or zoomers). Writer Matt Hershberger made some insightful observations about the sociological underpinnings of this phrase: “‘OK boomer,’ is the first retaliatory response to the bad advice given by boomers [to millennials] that is effectively the same in both content and form. It is reductive, dismissive, condescending, and designed to end conversation rather than start it.”
Why is “OK boomer” intended as a dismissal? Because significant portions of our younger generations feel that people with the “boomer” mindset have been more interested in dismissing or ending conversations about their concerns rather than discussing serious solutions. But what is this mindset to begin with? Once more, Hershberger explains succinctly:
The Boomer mindset is one that offers unsolicited or bad advice to younger people that is based on an economic context that has not been in place for over four decades. The new economic context, in which ‘work hard and pay off your loans’ or ‘just find a job with healthcare’ are absurd things to say, was, in fact, largely built by the Baby Boomer generation. This bad advice is often uttered condescendingly or dismissively to struggling Millennials or Gen Z ‘Zoomers,’ who do not appreciate it. For a long time, the only argument a Millennial or Zoomer could offer in response was a long explanation as to why that’s not how it works anymore. This response, usually heartfelt and born of frustration, almost always was ignored . . .
Of course, there is nothing wrong with advising someone to work hard, delay gratification, to save more than one spends, and to do one’s best to make sensible choices. The reality, however, is that the world has changed, with the opportunities for a fulfilling life much expanded due to more socially liberal attitudes and an interconnected online culture. This is a world that demands more empathy and imagination, but it is also a world that is increasingly unstable, with less social mobility and higher inequality, and, with the advent of accelerated climate change, possibly less livable. There is a sense of an intergenerational back-and-forth about these immense changes, with the boomer generation despairing at younger generation’s inability to fix their problems, and younger generations feeling that those subscribing to the boomer attitude are being willfully ignorant about their altered circumstances.
It is questionable how useful this framing of the dialectic is. There are too many exceptions to this rule. Not all millennials or zoomers are struggling. Plenty of boomers are marching with millennials and zoomers about climate justice or LGBTQI rights. There are, conversely, young people who have adopted the boomer mindset and will position themselves against the opinions of their peers, particularly in relation to the boomer-millennial divide. It is also important to consider that the greatest man-made disasters in recent memory, from the global financial crisis of 2008 to the continued plundering of the planet’s resources, were not collectively inflicted by boomers on everyone else, but mostly the responsibility of greedy and powerful people who exercise indirect control over boomers’ lives as much as those of burned out or underemployed millennials.
Put another way, the boomer worldview seems congruent when the outer world conforms to inner expectations that have been conditioned in young people by past generations. When these inner expectations, which were passed down to millennials and zoomers, are subverted by outer circumstances—the fact that it is much harder to own property than before, or that jobs are not always guaranteed to be commensurate with one’s hard work at university—one can only articulate an alternative vision and solutions, or deny that the problems exist or are problems at all. If alternative visions of human flourishing and prosperity and ecological sustainability are taken seriously by older generations, then they cannot be said to possess the boomer mindset. This mindset has nothing to do with age, impatience with the younger generation, a lack of empathy, or climate change skepticism. It is simply a mindset that is unwilling to adapt to changing circumstances; an ossified way of thinking.
It is therefore a matter of a few simple steps to rid oneself of the boomer mindset. It means listening in good faith to the anxieties and fears of millennials and zoomers, and to accept that nothing is permanent and therefore society itself is in a constant state of flux. All generations, from boomer to zoomer, need to see the benefits of thinking beyond the materialistic, post-1980s mindset of unfettered individualism.
The idea of intergenerational warfare represents a false binary and flawed framing. We are all in this together. Generations stretching back millions of years have shared the same beautiful, fragile planet. The hope for collective flourishing is at real risk from looming ecological catastrophe. More than ever, division risks further damage and we all need to realize that the true enemy is not each other, but unskillful mindsets, invisible but immensely powerful forces that are only overcome when we come together and commit to a future of mutual support, compassion, and love.