By Flora Gonska:
“OK, Boomer”—and if you’re reading this, I am talking to you. Whether you are a Baby Boomer, a member of Gen Z, or anywhere in between, you are the “Boomer” of some situation in your life.
The most common criticism I’ve heard is that the phrase is dismissive, and that young people might be missing out on a learning opportunity. For one person to insist that another has a lesson to learn, while they themselves have become closed off to learning in return, is a perfectly paradoxical example of the principal. If you still need a breakdown, here it is:
When a person fails to understand the context of an integral aspect of your life,
sometimes you just have to “OK, Boomer” them.
Not quite dismissive, this is defensive humor in action. There is a general consensus among young people that the joke highlighted an existing rift, although some folks across generations might consider it new. This highly misunderstood retort might seem rude but could actually open a new channel for discussions across differences.
So how did we get here?
It begins with the Internet! It’s 2020, almost everyone is on the Internet in one way or another; last year 3.2 billion people had smartphones (that’s right, more than forty percent of the global population). When so many people gather in the same place, there are bound to be differences of opinion, and as many comment sections show, there are plenty of clashes. The Internet is well known for its ability to give people the nerve to say things that they might not in other, more physical forums.
Disagreements range from playful to cut-throat and often emphasize differences between various segments of the population. With the haters who pop up in the Insta comments, that one person who just won't stop on Twitch, and the trolls on Reddit, not many corners of the internet are sunshine and rainbows 100% of the time. For the last 20 years, people around the world have been uploading their life to the cloud, byte by byte. Consequently, we have seen platforms rise and fall, each with distinct forms of communication and unique subcultures. Terms, phrases, and memes are open to dissection the moment someone puts them out there. Enter TikTok, a platform where users set moments to bits of music or audio, and occasionally foray into longer videos. The “OK, Boomer” audio clip isn’t nice; it says old ladies suck (and while not all of them do, some are definitely less than friendly). Some Boomers took it very personally, while others understood it as a joke—whether or not they find it funny. Taken less literally, it feels pretty reasonable; there are things where explaining the context is so time consuming and energy draining that they must simply be written off.
Among the deepest differences that Americans face is an all-time classic: Generational Divide. Young folks live their lives one day at a time, and before they know it, five decades have passed and many of their views have shifted dramatically.Time means something much different to the young than to their elders. With time, members of an older generation can feel that their tempered wisdom is more useful than the tenacity and optimism of their successors. When processing it logically, it is easy to understand that balance is key, but when caught in a moment of emotion, egos can flare and feelings can be hurt. Young people were “in their feelings” about “OK, Boomer” from the beginning, and the divide deepened as Boomers made their impassioned responses. From the “respect” argument to an SVP of AARP saying, “OK, Millennials, but we’re the people who actually have the money,” responses to “OK, Boomer” haven’t exactly been mellow.
The Missing Link
In my opinion, the “OK, Boomer” phenomenon boils down to different generational understandings of emotional labor, and when to say enough is enough. Take for instance ripped jeans: this comes up pretty often in “OK, Boomer” clips, so hear me out. Just fifty years ago, weaving fabric took much longer and cost much more than it does today. Fashion has always been changing and has played a different practical role in dress depending on your location, your class status, your gender, your race, etc. For anyone who had enough money and time, it was rarely about dressing practically, but for many people throughout history clothes were made to be thoroughly used, needed to be mendable, and had to be compatible with the work that one had to complete.
To get you up to speed on fashion since prehistoric times, read this. Done? Great, now you understand fashion, thanks for making it back. So do you get ripped jeans yet? Exactly! They are a style choice that makes little to no sense if you aren’t absorbed in current fashion trends; it’s a form of self-expression, and they aren’t practical for working in a factory or on a farm (nor are they meant to be). Now multiply the time and energy of explaining ripped jeans by the countless facets of life that young people are questioned on and expected to explain to their elders. That’s a lot of time and energy, right?
Here’s the thing: ripped jeans are the most topical example that I can think of. Limiting self-expression and classism are there, but it’s nowhere near the height of emotional labor. It is even more taxing when you are faced with a situation in which you are asked to defend part of yourself.
Every day people of color are put in situations where white folks shift the labor of explaining systemic and institutional racism to their own oppressors. Every day, members of the LGBTQ+ community are asked to explain how they have always existed and how new language is not indicative of new experiences. Every day, homeless and housing-insecure people are asked by folks with intergenerational wealth about their inability to budget, save, or be responsible. As a person who is privileged in many ways—but not in others—I’ve seen and experienced how draining defending your life to someone who may not take you at your word can be.
When the emotional labor becomes too great, you need to step back.
Sometimes you have to “OK, Boomer” someone so that you can
move on with your day and maintain your inner peace.
One thing that many young people have come to understand that elders are still digesting is that you don’t owe someone else an explanation of your life.
Many middle-aged and older people grew up in a time where they were required to answer to all forms of authority, regardless of how valid that person was to be asking the questions. Instead of taking some time to introspect on whether they have any business doing it, many project onto others that which was unfairly asked of them.
Regardless of age, if we can manage to do a little more self-education,
practice a little more empathy and compassion,
and question ourselves as much as we question others,
the world will be a little bit better.
I believe “old souls” and “children at heart” are important offsets in the generational divide that show us we have more in common than we have differences. “Ok, Boomer” has shown us, yet again, that a line has to be drawn. Young people want to feel understood, and many feel that they’ve gone out of their way to explain themselves. The kids are alright, they’re just exhausted from the emotional labor.
What generations do you deal with on a daily basis? How do you communicate with others and how has that changed over your lifetime? What changes are you most excited about?
Happy New Year! Time sure flies, Tick, Tock, TikTok.
A Cleveland, OH native, Flora Gonska is a non-binary trans woman from a big family. She's a writer, video producer/editor, and artist. An avid supporter of the LGBTQ+ community and equality movement, she has lived in Los Angeles for three years, and she's involved in and enjoys writing on politics, the LGBTQ+ community, and life in the US.