By Aja Romano
For a long time now, the cross-generational dialogue between baby boomers and millennials has been built atop several recurring themes. Boomers — the generation born roughly between 1946 and 1965 — scoff that millennials expect “participation trophies” for doing the bare minimum. Millennials say boomers are “out of touch.” Millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 1996) are “killing” once-stable industries like cereal by saving money, spending less, and “eating avocados.” Boomers have “mortgaged the future” in exchange for hoarding wealth while also voting to end necessary social programs. Millennials would rather complain about student debt than buckle down, work hard, and “get a job.”
If anything, teens have been subjected to even harsher rhetorical maligning. Members of Generation Z, born roughly between 1996 and 2015, are portrayed as addicted to their phones, “intolerant” of their elders, and stuck in a “different world” thanks to the internet.
With all this repetitive back-and-forth — seriously, there are bingo cards — it’s no wonder the most polarizing meme of the year is a two-word dismissal of the whole debate. “OK boomer,” which floated into the internet mainstream and rapidly gained traction this fall, is an attempt by millennials and Gen Z to both encapsulate this circular argument and reject it entirely.
OK boomer is meant to be cutting and dismissive. It suggests that the conversation around the anxieties and concerns of younger generations has become so exhausting and unproductive that the younger generations are collectively over it. OK boomer implies that the older generation misunderstands millennial and Gen Z culture and politics so fundamentally that years of condescension and misrepresentation have led to this pointedly terse rebuttal and rejection. Rather than endlessly defend decisions stemming from deep economic strife, to save money instead of investing in stocks and retirement funds, to buy avocados instead of cereal — teens and younger adults are simply through.
The conversation isn’t through with them, however, not least because the rise of OK boomer has provoked concurrent backlash from baby boomers, many of whom have misread the meme, and feel it is motivated mainly by ageism. But that misreading also feeds the meme — because baby boomers failing to understand the point of OK boomer is, well, the point of OK boomer.
Don’t get it twisted. It’s important to understand that what really lies behind the meme is increasing economic, environmental, and social anxiety, and the feeling that baby boomers are leaving younger generations to clean up their mess.
The earliest mentions of OK boomer can be traced as far back as 2015 on 4chan, where the phrase was used as an insult by the forum’s anonymous users, aimed at other anons who seemed out of touch. But the phrase really took off this year on TikTok, as a rebuttal to angry rants by baby boomers about kids these days. A song by Peter Kuli & Jedwill known as “OK BOOMER!” — the verses define boomers as racist, fascist Trump supporters with bad hair — became a popular song choice for TikTok sing-along videos this fall. Teens on the platform used the song’s intro and chorus as a rebuttal to annoying run-ins they’d had with seniors policing or judging their behavior:
Sometimes, the complaints teens are referencing in these videos are typical generational conflicts. But more often, they’re politicized, with teens reacting to adults who are judging things like their gender expression, their financial choices, their approach to job-hunting, or their leisure activities. The broader background to all of this resentment is the perceived irony that while boomers nitpick and judge younger generations for their specific choices, it’s the boomers’ own choices that created the bleak socioeconomic landscape that millennials and Gen Z currently face.
“Everybody in Gen Z is affected by the choices of the boomers, that they made and are still making,” teen entrepreneur Nina Kasman told the New York Times in October. “Those choices are hurting us and our future. Everyone in my generation can relate to that experience and we’re all really frustrated by it.”
“[T]he two words feel downright poetic after years of hearing my generation blamed for ‘killing’ everything from restaurant chains to department stores to relationships,” wrote Grist’s Miyo McGinn in early November, “even as so many of the challenges people my age face — student loan debt, general economic instability, and, of course, a rapidly warming planet — are the result of short-sighted decisions made by earlier generations.”
This broader socioeconomic aspect seems to have gotten lost as the meme spread throughout the mainstream, however. Many people became aware of OK boomer through the October New York Times article, which focused on teens who had taken the meme offline and were turning it into merchandise and fashion statements. Almost immediately, people rushed to sell OK boomer merchandise and attempted to trademark the phrase, and brands began to use it on social media — completely missing the inherent critique of capitalism that the meme enfolds, which led to more eyerolling.
But millennials who mocked the instant trendiness of OK boomer were drowned out by the meme’s intended targets: boomers. Some began claiming that “boomer” was an ageist slur equivalent to “the n-word,” while others merely discouraged the use of “boomer” in the workplace. Media outlets opined that the meme was “dividing generations.” Gen Xers offered the “both sides” take. In the Washington Post, history professor Holly Scott reminded everyone that boomers were once activists too.
This response helped further cement the meme as a dismissive retort to boomer condescension — and as it spread, its political aspects became more pointed. On November 4, 25-year-old New Zealand politician Chloë Swarbrick used the phrase as a rebuttal to one of her older colleagues in Parliament after the man heckled her during a speech about climate change. The moment occurred just as she was discussing the urgency her generation feels to prioritize and deal seriously with the problem, and explaining her frustration that previous cycles of lawmakers have failed to do so.
Swarbrick was castigated for bringing the meme into a political forum — but as she herself made clear in a subsequent essay for the Guardian, the meme represents a wealth of generational political concerns: “My ‘OK boomer’ comment in parliament was off-the-cuff, albeit symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations set to inherit ever-amplifying problems in an ever-diminishing window of time,” she wrote.
The point of Swarbrick’s climate change speech was that younger generations feel they can no longer rely on older generations to help solve major and daunting environmental and economic issues. And many baby boomers seem to be making her point for her by misunderstanding what OK boomer is about.
“As a baby boomer myself, I have mixed feelings about the latest linguistic weapon of generational warfare being deployed against us,” Bloomberg’s Tyler Cowen recently wrote in response to the meme. Cowen touched on what he saw as the meme’s ageism and attempted to reframe it as an ironic compliment to boomers, asserting that boomers are still the boss. “The phrase ‘OK boomer’ is itself an implicit and indeed somewhat passive admission as to who is really in charge,” he decided.
Cowen’s column was a strange echo of an August essay by former Deadspin editor Megan Greenwell. As she was exiting Deadspin, she wrote about the tone-deaf and poorly considered changes the site’s new parent company, G/O Media, had brought to the newsroom. Beyond discussing specific issues at Deadspin, Greenwell’s essay was a larger swipe at the hubris of tech companies and corporate moguls for assuming that they, not the journalists whose media outlets they were ruining, were “the adults in the room.” This attitude prompted an eventual wholesale rejection by Deadspin’s editorial staff, as they chose to resign en masse rather than submit to the whims of the bosses they felt were out of touch.
In a very real sense, that same tension between condescending, older authority figures and younger ones who reject them is at work in the OK boomer meme. Boomers like Cowen are simultaneously anxious about the meme’s ageist implications, and eager to assert their wisdom over younger generations. In response to this line of thinking, the Twitter hashtag #boomeradvice recently went viral — but instead of praising boomers’ knowhow, the point of the tag was to mock the most out-of-touch advice, often about work, job-seeking, and finance, that boomers had given millennials and teens.
What’s largely missing from the “elders know best” logic is any acknowledgment that it’s part of the problem, and that younger, well-read adults might also have wisdom and insight into the problems they’re dealing with.
It doesn’t help that studies have found that older people are more likely to judge younger people harshly compared to qualities they have themselves. As Vox’s Brian Resnick recently explained, a study on a phenomenon called “presentism” showed that “adults who are more authoritarian are more likely to say kids today are a lot less respectful of elders than they used to be. Adults who are more well read say kids today are a lot less interested in reading than they used to be. And adults who are more intelligent (as approximated by a very short version of an IQ test) are more likely to say kids are less smart than they used to be.”
So if an older adult sees themselves as financially successful, respectful, and job-loyal, the study suggests they might be more likely to view a younger person as a financially irresponsible and insolent job-hopper.
This is all arguably a new iteration of the “kids these days” generational cycle that every era experiences — at the very least, the backlash to the OK boomer meme underscores the belief held by many millennials that boomers have never understood their generation. But because of the cultural and political moment we’re in, the stakes feel much more fraught and high-risk than other generational clashes.
“I talked to my dad about it and he said the reason the ‘boomers’ get so mad is because they feel as if they earned the right to say such things to us kids because they worked hard for what they have,” said 16-year-old Adriana Lepera, who talked to Vox via Instagram. Lepera, a popular TikTok teen with over 120,000 followers, made a viral OK boomer TikTok reacting to a conversation she had with her grandfather. She used the meme to respond to his assertion that she should be working — even though she doesn’t even have a driver’s license yet, which she says makes it harder for her to find a job.
“After my [OK boomer] video, I got a few comments from ‘boomers’ explaining how many jobs they had and how hard they have to work, proving the joke to be true,” she told Vox.
Lepera admits that today’s teens do have it easier than boomers did in some ways. “Today’s kids are getting things handed to them, and that’s not what the boomers like to see, so they make cocky comments because they believe that they are ‘superior,’” she said.
But she also argues that boomers miss the point — that crucial things are a lot harder. “We are working hard to get fewer jobs,” she said. “That’s why we’re mad, because all of the boomers made it to be like that.”
Teens like Lepera understand that the OK boomer meme is driven both by their generation’s deep economic and environmental anxiety, and by progressive values that are growing firmer over time. Younger generations are more diverse, less religious, and more directly impacted by economic inequality than their forebears. “Ok, Boomer, millennials actually earn 20 percent less than you did,” GQ declared in mid-November. Millennials who value work culture, advancement possibilities, and quality of work over quantity are finding their paths to promotions blocked by baby boomers — but when they change jobs or careers in search of these things, they find themselves branded with the false stereotype of being disloyal job-hoppers. All the while, student debt remains high, and the economic scandals of the 2000s have led to millennials being more cynical than their elders about the benevolence of corporate overlords.
But many of those offended by OK boomer seem to understand very little of this. They’re instead sticking to their guns about the workplace, at least according to the teens who don’t trust them. “I feel as if they aren’t changing with the times,” Lepera told Vox. “They believe that how they did everything when they were younger, we should do as well.”
Whether it’s justified or not, boomers are largely perceived as resistant to progressive change. In 2016, boomers were more likely to vote for conservative options like Brexit and Donald Trump than younger voters; statistically, boomers are less concerned about climate change than younger generations. And even after overseeing decades of financial prosperity that’s arguably wrecked the economic future for decades to come, the richest baby boomers continue to amass wealth for themselves in the face of debilitating economic inequality.
Baby boomers, however, also have to contend with their growing obsolescence. Boomers as a voting bloc are outnumbered by millennials, and there’s an advancing push among millennials for greater voter turnout; in the 2018 midterm elections, Gen Z, millennials and Gen Xers collectively edged out the voter turnout of everyone older than them.
So the older generation is being told its advice is out of touch, and that boomers are out of touch, at a moment when their views have less traction in the current economic and political landscape than ever. Perhaps that’s why so many of them keep pushing back against the meme — thereby strengthening the meme’s basic point.
We all know the immortal cry that parents just don’t understand, but in this case, the media and the cultural narrative around the OK boomer meme isn’t helping — especially since so many attempts to “explain” the meme or “clap back” have missed the point about why millennials are mad. A few of these attempts have come across as just as out of touch as the meme’s targets.
In an attempt to provide a retort to the meme, Myrna Blyth, the senior vice president of the senior advocacy group AARP, stated in an interview that boomers are “the people that actually have the money.” This widely shared quote came in for massive criticism and ridicule, and the AARP quickly apologized, reminding everyone that “‘isms’ that divide us are not OK.”
But Blyth’s statement is a peak example of boomers missing the point. A big cause of younger generations’ resentment toward boomers is the perception that boomers are hoarding wealth. (This perception is accurate; the average baby boomer has a net worth that is 12 times more than the average millennial.) In particular, her statement highlights the pattern of boomers failing to realize that the perceived ageism of the meme, even as a joke, is a stand-in for rational economic anxieties.
Still, expressing this frustration through the meme seems to make boomers less inclined to listen, which leads to doubling down on all sides. As novelist Francine Prose put it in an op-ed for the Guardian:
“The accepted explanation and justification for all this is that the old have ruined things for the young: we’re responsible for climate change, for income inequality, for the cascading series of financial crises, for the prohibitive cost of higher education. Fair enough, I suppose, though it does seem unjust to direct one’s anger at the average middle-class senior citizen struggling to survive on social security rather than raging at, let’s say, the Koch brothers the Sacklers, the big banks, and the fossil-fuel lobbyists who have effectively dismantled the EPA. OK, Morgan Stanley, have a terrible day.”
But to the TikTok teens, the boomers’ sensitivity to the meme just makes them hypocritical. “They feel as if they can say whatever they want about our generation and no repercussion,” Lepera told Vox, “but when we make a joke about them it’s the end of the world.”
In the end, the debate around OK boomer might be another iteration of the endless parade of internet-fueled ideological debates in which neither side is listening to the other. For frustrated millennials and teens, OK boomer is an emotionally valid response to boomer condescension, but to frustrated baby boomers, it sounds insolent and disrespectful: You say, “OK boomer,” and I hear, “your entire generation has irrevocably destroyed human civilization.” Let’s call the whole thing off?
Perhaps, in the future, it’s worth eschewing the meme altogether and having one more conversation across the generation gap. Or, if you’re a boomer, you could take Lepera’s advice:
“Just like take a joke and calm down boomer.”
Aja Romano is a writer for Vox and other websites reporting on the arts and internet culture.