Settling the ‘Ok, Boomer’ debate once and for all
On Nov. 7, Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old lawmaker, was delivering a speech in front of the New Zealand Parliament in favor of the Zero Carbon Bill, a piece of legislation designed to set a target for the country to be at zero carbon emissions by 2050. During her speech, Swarbrick was heckled by an unidentified older member of Parliament, whereupon she nonchalantly responded with the phrase “Ok, Boomer,” seeming to acknowledge, but parry the attacking verbiage of her detractor. Swarbrick’s choice of words here could be perceived as quite intriguing, as she was clearly referencing a viral meme referring to the baby boomers, a generation of Americans and Western Europeans born in the two decades of economic prosperity and abundance following the Second World War.
The meme itself refers to the act of simply hearing what the “Boomer” has to say, and dismissing it as trite, uninsightful and outdated due to the perception of this generation being out of touch with current trends, facts of life and ways of thinking. Additionally, it portrays them as being responsible for the wastefulness that has exacerbated the current climate crisis, as well as a host of other economic and social problems. Since its inception, the meme has grown to refer to a response to something someone says that may seem old-fashioned or insensitive to the struggles of current generations. Understandably, the saying has drawn a list of critics, with many actual baby boomers seeing the phrase itself as an insensitive, ageist assumption based solely on the generation someone was born in. Others see it as an insulting, distortive ad-hominem attack against perfectly valid political, economic or social arguments.
Out of the many memes to emerge in the ever turbulent year of 2019, “Ok, Boomer” is the one which I am most on the fence about. To me, it represents a series of succeeding generations that is becoming increasingly exasperated by an older group’s perceived incompetence and indifference towards pressing issues. However, I also see it as an unfair classification of one’s beliefs and character, magnified by the broad stereotype of seeing anyone over the age of 50 as not contributing in any meaningful way to modern political discourse.
My position on said ideological fence acknowledges both sides of the Ok Boomer debate, but to simply exist in this equilibrium of ambivalence does no good for anyone, much less does it appropriately classify the nature of the meme itself. We must understand why exactly the meme exists in the first place, why it was able to make its way into a Parliamentary debate and why responding with these words has, to some, become a viable alternative to actually refuting the other side’s arguments.
The phrase itself is often uttered with an apathetic tone, as if one were acknowledging what someone else was saying, and simply proceeding to ascribe to it little argumentative or intellectual virtue. In this vein, the word “Boomer” is used to invalidate entirely the words of another without taking into account what the words actually are. To many, such a response to what could potentially be a well-thought-out mode of thinking, or at least an attempt to meaningfully contribute to a conversation of some importance, is disrespectful and spiteful at best, and bigoted at worst. The above is how the average Baby Boomer would most likely feel if their arguments were shut down in such a way. However, the person actually saying it feels the opposite way, and it might not be motivated by ageism but instead by a deeper, intergenerational rift, where one side’s perspective may be irreconcilable with that of another.
The Baby Boomers, objectively speaking, were born into a society of unprecedented wealth, opportunity and prosperity, brought about after decades of hardship and one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. This generation may see America, and by extension, the world, as a place where stoic commitment and hard work are the keys to success and prosperity. Growing up, this generation was unaffected by the ticking time bomb that is climate change, not worrying at all about natural resources or consequential economic choices. On the other hand, this generation grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War and Cambodian Genocide, as well as the unparalleled destructiveness of nuclear weapons and the consequences of a war fought with them. Knowing this, I think it’s inappropriate and unfair to use the words Ok Boomer to highlight someone’s unawareness of pressing issues such as race relations or the ethics of war. Conversely, since a majority of Baby Boomers grew up in a time where economic hardship and inequality were far less visible, there is a tendency for them to adopt the misguided worldview that hard work alone and determination, regardless of one’s background, is the key to success in life, and that to state otherwise would be a poor excuse for one’s own shortcomings. This worldview tragically ignores the harsh reality many Americans, a majority of which are minorities, face.
However, the phrase itself isn’t entirely without merit. To understand why, one needs to only look at the above example when it was actually used during a New Zealand Parliamentary hearing. Swarbrick’s manner of speaking, and her tone, despite having her speech rudely heckled, was calm and collected.
Like how many perceive a majority of the Baby Boomers’ worldview to be outdated and ignoring many harsh realities people across the world face, so too was Swarbrick’s address to the heckler an acute representation of how my generation in particular feels about this debate.
There is a high degree of resentment, disdain and anger towards the way Baby Boomers view the world in spite of the historic and revolutionary moments in history they have lived through. Above all, however, there is an element of frustration, a lingering aura of disappointment and upset at an older generation that has the potential to teach mine a great deal about the way the world works, and is instead attempting to hinder progress. It is precisely this frustration that has led not to anger and direct confrontation but a dry, lifeless nonchalance; the acknowledgement of “Ok,” followed by the stereotypical yet seething classification of “Boomer.”