The Limits of ‘OK Boomer’

OK Boomer
Shannon O’Connor’s OK BOOMER hoodie.

I’ve seen two articles going round about the ‘OK boomer’ meme – a phrase younger people are using in response to some condescending and reactionary older people and their ideas.

Taylor Lorenz writes in The New York Times:

Nina Kasman […] said that while older generations have always looked down on younger kids or talked about things “back in their day,” she and other teens believe older people are actively hurting young people. “Everybody in Gen Z is affected by the choices of the boomers, that they made and are still making,” she said. “Those choices are hurting us and our future. Everyone in my generation can relate to that experience and we’re all really frustrated by it.”

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“The reason we make the ‘ok boomer’ merch is because there’s not a lot that I can personally do to reduce the price of college, for example, which was much cheaper for older generations who then made it more expensive,” Ms. Kasman said. “There’s not much I can personally do to restore the environment, which was harmed due to 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.”

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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.”

“We’re not taking a jab at boomers as a whole — we’re not going for their lives,” said Christopher Mezher, 18. “If it’s a jab at anyone it’s outdated political figures who try to run our lives.”

And Kalhan Rosenblatt in NBC News:

The word also isn’t exclusively lobbed at older people. Young people often use it against one another if they feel another person their age is being closed-minded or says something that sounds like it came from an older generation.

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Brennan said when he was recently critiqued by his father for always being on his phone, he used the phrase “OK boomer,” and then explained that older generations were responsible for things like “climate change, the 2008 financial crisis,” and “several wars we should not have been in.”

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I like the meme. It’s a fun bit of irony, and I can relate to what Nina Kasman said. But – since I’m here to overanalyse things – I find both of its potential uses rest on a limited view of politics.

The purely generational approach is a reactionary one, grouping masses of distinct people together by age to make a simple blame narrative.

Are ‘older generations’ responsible for ‘the 2008 financial crisis’? What, the ones who weren’t in positions of power? The ones who weren’t running the finance sector? The ones who didn’t have any real control over neoliberalism? The ones who opposed it? And didn’t boomers lose out in the crash too?

As Andrew Hart puts it in Jacobin:

“they” are those who have made an idyll of everyone else’s misery; “politics” is the process of seeing who will align to oppose them; “we” are the people who stand together. We have no place in our politics for the bad story of generations.

Nina Kasman refers to the ‘corporate greed of older generations’. But corporations behave like this due to market incentives, not because there aren’t enough zoomers on the board.

There are people of all ages at all parts of the political compass. If you’re angry at boomers, identify the specific thing you’re actually angry about – climate change denial, neoliberalism, etc – and align with all the allies available.

That gives rise to the second form of ‘OK boomer’ – targeting not a generation, but a mindset. And sure, boomer mindset sucks. But then what?

Let’s suppose everyone becomes more open to change, accepts climate science, stops asking to see the manager, becomes more accepting of different groups, etc. That would be good! It would be a great improvement in many areas, particularly for targets of bigotry.

But then what happens to fossil fuel companies, low wages, arms companies, rents, financial imperialism, etc? These issues don’t instantly disappear with zoomer mindset alone.

The roots of major global problems aren’t in people having a boomer mindset. The issues lie in an economy structured for funneling profit to a small class of authoritarian owners instead of for sustainable democratic human flourishing. They arise from economic incentives, the structure of power itself, how classes relate to capital and how interests clash. Mindset does matter, but we have a tendency to fetishise it, to focus on it above material conditions.

The boomer mindset critique suggests that a different way of thinking would produce a different society. There’s certainly some truth to that. But when people are answerable to shareholders, that produces pressure in a certain direction. When someone can get exorbitantly wealthy from environmental recklessness, or by exploiting a workforce, hoping for spontaneous virtue is a weaker response than collectively changing the fundamental incentives and power structures.

OK boomer is just a dank meme I’m overanalysing. But if we don’t want today’s OK boomer to become future decades’ OK zoomer, we need an approach to politics which targets the real roots of the existing order. Casting a whole generation as the enemy is wrong and unhelpful. The critique of boomer mindset is more productive, but still can’t explain the conditions that produced our current state. And thus, cannot by itself show the way out.

4 thoughts on “The Limits of ‘OK Boomer’

  1. Excellent article!, Alex, In addition to the problems you’ve mentioned with the expression “OK Boomer,” it is a way of dismissing peoples’ opinions in a way they can’t reply to.

    I do regard the OK Boomer expression with a certain sense of irony because I was born in 1936 and my generation supposedly regarded the baby boomers as drug-taking, Vietnam-protesting, rock-and-roll-loving hippies. And the boomers supposedly regarded my generation as timid conformists.

    It’s true that the younger generation has inherited a much more unforgiving world than the one I was born into. I guess I bear some small share of responsibility for that, but not nearly so much as those who were then and are now at the top of the power structure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Exactly, it’s the structure that matters. I don’t see why my generation should be somehow immune to the same incentives that work on anyone at the top of this system.

      Like

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