Seán Moncrieff: Not OK boomer. It’s time to apologise to millennials
Millennials and Generation Z are inheriting a world we have permanently damaged
OK Boomer: the put-down is emblazoned on hoodies and T-shirts and cups. Photograph: Shannon O’Connor via The New York Times
OK Boomer. It’s a new thing. It’s emblazoned on hoodies and T-shirts and cups. (Or merch, as the kids call it). Those kids say it to older people. Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old MP for the Green party in New Zealand, used it in a speech in parliament. It’s so new that the live subtitling translated it as OK Berma.
But most importantly, it’s a meme. It started earlier this year on the social media site TikTok (that’s new too), when an older user opined that millennials and Generation Z have Peter Pan syndrome and don’t want to grow up. There were various snarky responses to this, but the phrase “OK Boomer” quickly became the most favoured.
Roughly translated, it means “whatever”, implying that the young person is already defeated by the towering ignorance of their older interlocutor. So ignorant is the oldie that their education in the ways of the world would take far too long and might be a waste of time anyway. So the young person doesn’t bother trying. OK Boomer.
But since it was first coined, it’s become far more than a snappy put-down. It’s become freighted with meaning. An article in the New York Times saw it as no less than a declaration of intergenerational war from young people sick of the worsening climate crisis and an economic future far less certain than that faced by their parents.
Plus ça change, you might say. Every generation has rebelled. Every generation feels their elders really don’t understand how the world works. In my day, rebellion was music and clothes and hair. (My day was a long time ago.) We didn’t go to Mass and we had sex. Or tried to. There was a lot to rebel against, actually. It was hard to find the time.
I sometimes feel sorry for young people as there seem to be fewer obvious targets for revolt. They can dress pretty much any way they want. Their music is largely non-threatening. We encourage them to believe what they want and express themselves. We listen to them. The generation gap has never been so slim.
Or at least that’s what I’ve been blithely assuming. A lot of the online reaction against OK Boomer has been pretty vicious and often hysterical and only managed to serve up many examples of why the younger generation might have cause to be a tad annoyed: they are cosseted snowflakes running to safe spaces. One radio presenter compared use of the word boomer to the N-word. Yet it’s difficult to disentangle this from the wider political toxicity in the US: the row seems to be as much left-right as young-old.
But that’s not to argue that there isn’t a generational divide. There is. Growing up, I had it better than my parents at the same age: and they liked to occasionally remind me of this. But they did it by pointing out peers of mine who seemed more grateful and got jobs in the bank or the Civil Service. I don’t remember them ever making blanket proclamations about my generation and how terrible it was.
Growing up, my kids had it better than me. And they hear about that all the time. Occasionally from me, but constantly from a wider, older culture that routinely depicts them as frail, anxious, slow to grow up and having already failed before they started.
This might contain an element of truth, but it’s still a bit rich. Millennials and Generation Z might have had nice childhoods, but they are inheriting a world we have permanently damaged and are still not doing enough to repair, along with an economic model where the things we could aspire to – the permanent pensionable job, the prospect of owning a home – have for them come close to impossible.
Perhaps, rather than dismissing this generation, we should be apologising to them. OK, Boomers?