Back in 1963, when the term “baby-boomer” was first published in a Salt Lake Tribune article, it carried just one definition: a person born during the tail end or in the decade after World War II, when the United States saw a tremendous spike in births. Frequently shortened to “boomer,” over the years the phrase has been imbued with layers of meaning and implication. Much like “millennial,” “boomer” doesn’t merely indicate a person born in a given time or place, it’s a blanket term referencing the predominant trends, values and concerns of an entire generation.
“Boomer” is also, evidently, an insult to an older person, who may or may not technically be a baby boomer. The development of the word as a pejorative is a pretty recent phenomenon, best exemplified by “OK boomer” — a phrase that has gained heavy traction on the social video app TikTok, among other internet platforms. Much like the poorly aged ‘90s slang “talk to the hand,” “OK boomer” is a derisive repudiation, a bit mocking in tone, like a verbal eye roll — and it’s directed specifically by a young person toward someone older.
‘OK boomer’ may be offensive to some, but it’s not a slur
If you’ve spent much time on Twitter lately, you’ve probably observed ample activity around #OKBoomer and #boomer. In a now-deleted tweet, radio host Bob Lonsberry conjured a storm of controversy when he likened “boomer” to the N-word, claiming that it was an ageist slur — an allegation that John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com expertly negates.
“You cannot compare the N-word to ‘boomer’; if you do, you’re fundamentally not understanding the power balance that goes with slurs,” Kelly says. “People in positions of power do not have slurs [attacking them] the way people in minority groups do — particularly groups that have historically been oppressed.”
‘Boomer’ has become a catchall phrase for someone older who is close-minded and resistant to change
Nuance plays a profound role here: the term ‘boomer’ doesn’t precisely mean ‘baby boomer,’ not on the internet, anyway, where Kelly adds “we’re constantly navigating our identities."
“We’re not using ‘boomer’ per se to take down people who were born after World War II in the baby boom. 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.”
Millennials are fed up with being shamed and silenced by boomers
“OK boomer” may seem to have sprung out of nowhere, but it has been a long time coming. Millennials have been shouldering blame, shame and dismissal from older generations for years.
“Millennials have faced extraordinary levels of student loan debt only to be told that they need to take unpaid internships or cobble together a living wage with part time work, [and] when we dare to complain, the boomers tell us that in their day, they put in their time and we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” says Caitlin Fisher, author of “The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation.”
“Yet the world they are leaving for us is a deck stacked against us. The minimum wage is not livable, health care costs are exorbitant (while many boomers rely on tax-funded health care programs and simultaneously tell us that socialism will be the downfall of society), living and education expenses are increasing far faster than wages keep up, and we're tired of being told we aren't allowed to complain.”
Lindsey Turnbull, 30, an entrepreneur who works with teen and tween girls as the owner of MissHeard Media, finds that, in general, boomers shun the concerns of younger people, pointing to their lack of experience in life as grounds for their dismissal.
“Gen Z are more compassionate and thoughtful with their language, [and in response] boomers decry them as PC police," Turnbull says. “Gen Z faces an unstable world due to climate and economic crises and the steady, visible rise of white nationalist populism. They feel boomers are not willing to acknowledge these real issues, let alone create solutions, and would rather chastise them for their age, looks or ability.”
It’s worth noting, as Paige Hoveling, 33, of Halifax, Canada, underscores, that older generations have long been using the word “millennial” as an insult or rejection of younger folks — regardless of whether they’re technically millennials.
“We've been trying to explain that the millennial stereotype is wrong to no avail,” Hoveling says. “[Boomers] just keep lobbing ‘millennial’ around like it's a swear; however, when we finally give up and find something humorous to combat it, boomers get very upset. Pot, meet kettle.”
Turning ‘OK boomer’ into a chance for a conversation
If you’re in the baby boomer age range and the term “OK boomer” doesn’t offend you, you’re probably not the type of boomer that the expression is calling out. Remember, this isn’t really about how old you are, this is about your attitude and how receptive you are (or aren’t) to the values and struggles of younger generations.
But even if you aren’t offended by this slangy retaliation, it’s not exactly a pleasant or welcoming term. The idea of trying to start a dialogue with someone who slings “OK boomer” at you is not unlike that of politely opening the door for a person who just slammed one in your face. It brings us to the question: How can boomers bridge the gap with younger people who might just assume that they don’t understand, don’t care and have no interest in listening?
“The ideal way to respond to ["OK boomer"], I think, is to get curious about it,” says Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of business communications at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, noting she deals mostly with college sophomores. “People want to be acknowledged and heard.”