We don't want to hear about avocado toast ever again—that’s the sentiment behind the explosive growth of “ok boomer,” the Gen Z and Millennial social media retort to complaints from the olds that has caught fire online in recent weeks.
“Ok boomer” first surfaced over a year ago, but it has taken off as a recognizable part of Internet vernacular more recently, especially on Gen Z-dominated social media platform TikTok. It’s a casual two-word phrase, but it’s packed with meaning: It represents young Americans’ exhaustion with having to counter dubious narratives of how they’re unprecedentedly narcissistic or sensitive or entitled or lazy. It’s also a conversation-ending rejoinder, dismissing the statement at hand as unworthy of engagement or rebuttal. The message is resonating to the point that some teens are making thousands of dollars off selling “ok boomer” merchandise. And its dismissiveness seems to be getting under the skin of many older Internet users—conservative radio host Bob Lonsberry called it the “n-word of ageism” in a now-deleted tweet (which received countless “ok boomer” replies in response).
When a middle-aged man records himself complaining about how kids these days all suffer from “Peter Pan syndrome,” one of those kids will remix the video to include themselves scribbling an “ok boomer” sign while bearing an impish grin. When a Baby Boomer columnist blames millennials for killing the power lunch with their addiction to smartphones, he’ll get barraged with “ok boomer” replies on Twitter. When old people say absurd things about how marijuana melts the brains of the youth: “ok boomer."
But “ok boomer” has quickly evolved into more than just a comeback. It also appears to represent a broader left-leaning ethos of anger, if not rage, over the daunting circumstances that young Americans have been born into. On social media posts, “ok boomer” is a meme and hashtag often tied to concerns about catastrophic climate change, inequality, racism, misogyny, student debt, and increases in the cost of living. There’s even a viral “ok boomer” song in which college student Jonathan Williams sings: “You're all old and racist / All about the fakeness / I'm tryna pay my bills but I'm all on the waitlist.” Later in the verse, Williams refers to MAGA hats as fascist, and expresses disdain for nationalism: “Say America again, I'm gonna take a piss.”
The irreverence of “ok boomer” and the worldview that it provides a glimpse into is encouraging—it suggests an interest in bucking the tattered political and economic establishment that’s been handed to the youth. But ultimately it remains crucial for young activists to remember that today’s inhospitable world is not the product of total consensus among the older generations. Rather, it’s a testament to the success of right-wing political projects—architected by elites—which dominated the latter half of the Cold War. After all, a lot of Boomers were once anti-war hippies and militant left-wing activists who fought for economic, racial, and gender equality. They didn’t all just flip into conservatives. Rather, they were overpowered by the right.
Gen-Z-ers, who were born after 1997 and represent the core users of the “ok boomer” meme, are right to say that they are coming of age in a world made ugly by selfish choices that came before their time. Decades of climate change denialism means that they might never see a world as stable or as bountiful in resources as generations before them. They’ve been sent to fight in senseless wars that began when they were in diapers. They’ll take on more student debt than those before them because of decades of state disinvestment in higher education. Those of them who are entering the job market or stand on the brink of doing so have a decent shot at finding a job, but there’s a good chance that the job they get will be precarious, pay a lot less than something comparable would 40 years ago, and barely cover out-of-control costs of rent and health care. And if things get rough, they might slip through the holes in the torn up social safety net.
By contrast, Boomers, who were born in the wake of World War II, enjoyed arguably the greatest job market in American history, had much lower costs of living, saw an astonishing rise in real incomes over the course of their working lives, and faced no serious consequences for burning fossil fuels like there was no tomorrow. Boomers are going to get more out of Social Security than they put in, after racking up huge amounts of debt that will be dealt with by future generations.
In light of all this, it’s obvious why tropes in public discourse about young people as whiny, hypersensitive ingrates are infuriating for young people. It’s not just that evidence for young Americans as especially entitled or narcissistic is lacking, it’s that it seems to get the dynamic backwards: Aren’t Boomers, wealthy after exploiting the historic fortunes that accompanied their coming of age, the real “Me” generation?
It’s tempting to argue that, but it can lead to a misguided analysis of the roots of the problems young people face. Consider, for example, the stereotypical image of Boomers as sitting fat and happy as they entire retirement after lucking into a period of exceptional prosperity in American history.
In reality, wealth among the generation is extremely unevenly distributed. While Boomers hold a vast majority of financial assets in the US, that ownership of wealth is concentrated among a powerful minority of them. Mark Blyth, a professor of political economy at Brown University's Watson Institute, has explained that the top 20 percent of Boomers own 85 percent of the financial assets among their cohort, and that half of them don’t have financial assets at all. Data from other sources suggests that the bottom 50 percent of Boomers have some real nonfinancial assets (like real estate)—but it’s generally a small fraction of what’s needed to retire on. The reality for most Boomers is that they will struggle to scrape by relying far too heavily—or entirely—on Social Security payments which aren’t close to enough to survive on for many people.
This is all to say that inequality within Boomers as a generation is tremendous. As Blyth pointed out in a 2017 interview, while the richest Boomers have benefited from backing trickle down economics starting in the Reagan era, “there's loads of people in that age cohort who've been hurt by those policies too.”
According to the Stanford Center on Longevity, Boomers are already witnessing a decline compared to those a bit older than them—they possess less wealth, more debt, and face higher expenses than retirees a decade earlier. “It's understandable that a trajectory of general decline can seem generational, but they're episodes in a process of rot,” Doug Henwood, a left-wing economic journalist, told me. “Pitting one against another effaces that fact that ‘Boomers’ didn't make the important economic and political decisions — capitalists and the people they pay to think and rule for them did.”
This isn’t pedantry. Keeping track of who precisely is to blame for the state of the world has implications for how people view the path to change. In a New York Times report on the “ok boomer” phenomenon, teens express a sense of futility about a world that has been potentially irreversibly ruined by careless old people. “The reason we make the ‘ok boomer’ merch is because there’s not a lot that I can personally do to reduce the price of college, for example, which was much cheaper for older generations who then made it more expensive,” one told the Times. That line of thinking obscures the ideological and political clashes that produced today’s world — and will be necessary to change it in the future.
In reality, there’s the potential for alliance with older generations. While Boomers skew significantly more conservative than younger generations, it’s worth noting that plenty of them are liberal, and don’t side ideologically with the policies that rigged the economy in favor of the rich. Pew data from 2016 shows that Boomers were split evenly between those who leaned Republican and those who leaned Democrat. (Gen X were 48% Democratic and 37% Republican, while millennials were 54% Democratic and 33% Republican.)
The takeaway of all this is that many young people and Boomers share an interest and an inclination to band together along class lines and fight for a fairer world. On average, young people share a lot more in common with Boomers than the tech titan millennials and Gen-X-ers who own vast amounts of capital through monopoly businesses and are increasingly eager to back Republicans to defend their controversial corporate practices. Every generation has a small set of elites whose interests diverge from the rest and play an outsize role in structuring political economy—one day, Gen Z will have its own lot. The real test is how that generation works to dismantle the political and economic institutions that allow those elites to exploit the world with impunity.
“Ok boomer” is a funny comeback, and it comes from an understandable place. But ultimately the issue driving the current crisis isn’t a war between generations, it’s a war between classes.