Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.
The Boomer War has begun.
After years of tension, a spark has lit the flames of division and brought the undercurrents of intergenerational resentment to the forefront of social discourse. Beginning October 28th , and metastasizing through the lawless wastes of TikTok, the latest trending social media platform and meme spawning ground.
The conflict spread quickly and decisively to all the old battlegrounds; making headlines in national papers, inspiring works of art, and seizing the market for trendy merchandise. Even New Zealand’s house of parliament has not escaped the first shots.
Like many wars, it began with the sudden proliferation of a new and lethal weapon which translates old animosity into incisive blows.
The ‘OK, Boomer’ meme is easy to understand, broadly applicable, and captures the tone with which the meme-generations want to rebuke the people they blame for the struggles they now face. ‘OK, Boomer’ exists as a predator, prowling the fields of public discourse, looking for comments that are out of touch with the groupthink of the younger generations.
The specifics of the victim’s identity are less important; they need not even be a member of the Baby Boomer generation for which the meme is named, so long as they are expressing an opinion associated with the ‘archetype’ of the Boomer. Such opinions include criticism of younger generations for a perceived frivolous or carefree existence, remarks on how the old days were so much better and harder, dismissal of modern science (especially climate change and vaccination), and bafflement with technology. Generally, they fail to accept things as they are now when they were different before.
The legacy of this meme will be like most others: another phrase added to the common language, one which will be often used and therefore often brought to mind. It’s important to recognize that the words we use affect the ways we think, and the tone of our relationships is often related to the patterns of our language. When we add words and phrases with antagonistic, divisive, and hostile connotations to our everyday vocabulary, the tone of our relationships is primed to follow suit. So before you incorporate the latest meme into your next conversation, ask yourself: what is the message I am sending?
The ‘OK Boomer’ meme is two-pronged, serving both as an attack (a persecution of the ‘Boomer’ group or a dismissal of their ideas), and as a rallying cry for younger generations who want to take a stand against the injustices inherent to the systems currently controlled by members of this Boomer generation.
The ‘OK, Boomer’ meme is akin to other recent youth movements, such as the climate change activist group known as Extinction Rebellion (XR). The message of XR is that older generations have failed to act and failed to listen, so now only acts of rebellion – acts which disregard and disrespect the systems which the older generations control – will be sufficient to bring about necessary change. While XR disregards laws, the ‘OK, Boomer’ meme disregards its victims’ (the Boomers’) participation in public discourse, with the message that if they will not listen, we should not listen to them.. ‘OK, Boomer’ unites progressive activists and other youth who are tired of being criticized for laziness and entitlement when they complain about the insurmountable challenges in the environment, economy, and other sectors that have been left for their generation to face. ‘OK, Boomer’ serves as a tool for dismissing the criticisms of people who did not face the modern struggles and therefore are perceived not to understand them.
Still, this rhetorical tool cannot prune the good from the bad any more than a river can drown the witch. The mentality of, “Let them all be evil boomers first, and we’ll sort out the good ones later,” is not a harbinger of progress or a sign of the new ideals being vindicated over the old. Instead, it is a blanket rejection of an entire demographic’s input on the basis of generalizations about their generation. It is a dangerous endorsement of ignorance and dogmatism.
Today’s crises will not be solved by solely by Generation Z, Millennials, Gen X, or Baby Boomers. Automation affects us all, and will require the collaboration of us all. Climate change, though it affects some disproportionately to others, will not be solved unless the older generations currently in positions of power step forward and do their part. Additionally, if today’s youth spend all their efforts in fighting modern systems, their energy will not fuel the necessary constructive responses to these modern crises. Cultural conflict between the older and younger generations should not be so easily sparked, because it distracts from the common cause they must make. When Extinction Rebellion chooses to stand on top of subway cars and block bridges, they are reinvigorating animosity. When Millennials respond to ignorance with ‘OK, Boomer’, they are saying that they will solve their problems themselves. Both groups are making the statement that they have given up on working collaboratively within the existing social systems, and see it as necessary to strike out on their own. This is a huge endeavour, and we must ask if it is too soon to give up. It is unfortunate that, with future crises looming so closely, we have little time to sit and contemplate that question.
However, we should not mistake the most prolific users of this meme for people who were previously gung-ho about listening to and working with their elders. This meme is not a virus creating hordes of Twitter users ripe with a vitriolic ageism, but it is a tool which empowers these long-latent animosities. Like a war cry, it gives words to a cause, and here that cause is the realization of simmering resentments. Finally, Millennials and Generation Z can strike back.
The principle of revenge is well understood. A victim, wronged, becomes the perpetrator and wrongs their oppressor. This retributive act provides a catharsis and makes for a good story, but more importantly, it justifies the exercising of power over others. Victims have the opportunity to regain a sense of control, after having experienced a loss of control to their oppressor. We refer to revenge in many inconspicuous ways; we say that someone is ‘getting a taste of their own medicine’, or ‘reaping what they’ve sowed’, as if their misbehaviour makes them an acceptable target. For Millennials, their mischaracterizations as ‘lazy’ and ‘self-centered’ now serve as justification for their own crusades. Youth growing up in an age rife with both new challenges and the culmination of old ones have been unfairly bombarded with ignorant generalizations and bigoted disrespect. But to turn these injustices back to their source is an action equally misguided. Fighting ignorance with ignorance and generalization with generalization is only a sure way to multiply hostility and division.
Today’s culture wars are fought on forums: in Facebook group chats, through the gunslinging shootouts of a Twitter exchange, and across the dreaded no man’s land of a YouTube comments section. We all become soldiers, but some know the weapons and the trenches better than others. Generation Z has never known a world without the Internet. To them, these wars are a second language. Unfamiliar with the new digital theatre of this war, Baby Boomers and their ilk face new disadvantages not experienced by previous senior generations. The dissemination of culture is not the only aspect of our modern life that is changing faster than ever before. Consider the economy, the climate, technology – all are changing in a manner which threatens to make the ‘old ways’ obsolete. The world is demanding that we stay vigilantly relevant, which is more easily accomplished by those who have known nothing besides the current way of life.
We are sometimes reminded that every generation hates the one before and the one to come. However, have the stakes ever been so high or the young so well suited to the war? Each generation is in its own way a Frankensteinian product of its time – created monstrously by those who came before, and spurned for our struggles to adapt to a world we did not make, we turn on our creators to express a wild rage.
“OK, Boomer” burned bright but brief, and is already fading away as another dead meme. But the sentiments of resentment and hopelessness it has amplified will not so quickly dissipate, and the culture of antagonistic polarization that birthed it seems to grow stronger everyday.
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