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'OK boomer' is dividing generations. What does it mean?

Why 'OK boomer' may be our best chance to bridge the inter-generational divide.
Image: OK Boomer has the internet in a tiff. Let's use it as chance for a conversation
"OK boomer" has become an insult to a certain kind of older person, who may or may not technically be a baby boomer.NBC News; Getty Images

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 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.”

The reason "OK boomer" exists is because many Gen Z and millennials feel that they are not being heard or acknowledged. Take some steps back and reckon with that and do a bit of self-inventory to see how you might have contributed to this problem. Additionally, imagine what it’s like to be saddled with debt at 20 years old and to be told you should be buying a house instead of avocado toast.

If someone calls you a “boomer” and it feels like the burn it was intended to be, ask yourself, “Why did that hurt? Why did I get an 'OK boomer'?” Bevins says. From there, you might want to try to unpack the phrase and say something along the lines of, “I get that I am not hearing you the way you want to be heard,” she explains. “‘Help me understand what I'm not getting. Let's have a cup of coffee and see if we can figure out what I did to get that [insult].’ You have to be willing to be vulnerable. From there, you can try to take the conversation in a better and more productive direction.”

Ultimately, it’s a two-way street. If you’re slinging “OK boomer” at elders instead of embarking on a real conversation with them, you’re probably not going to see any change from people, and you’ll only deepen the divide, which very may well be your intention if you’re already fed up. Still, it’s worth cooling down and rethinking your strategy. Perhaps shunning boomers isn’t the answer for those looking to make constructive, productive change in the world.

“You will not get someone to change their behavior by throwing ‘OK boomer’ at them,” Bevins says. “I talk a lot about audience analysis with my students. I ask, ‘What do you want your audience to feel?’ Think of this before considering what you want them to do. You’ll have to pick your battles and for some people this may not feel safe. It may not even be worth having the conversation, which as a communications professor, is tough for me to swallow. But my advice is to figure out where you can make the most difference and go from there.”


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