What The ‘Ok Boomer’ Narratives Get Wrong

Gen-Z Have A Complex Relationship With The Past.

The phrase ‘Ok Boomer’, which just weeks ago was a little known phrase used by Gen Z’ers on social media platforms such as TikTok, has recently become a commonly known phrase and focal point of debate; spawning multiple op-eds and cable news segments. The phrase was even used by a 25-year-old MP in New Zealand during a debate about climate change.

‘Ok Boomer’ saw a massive spike in interest after Taylor Lorenz detailed the phenomenon in a New York Times piece entitled “‘Ok Boomer’ Marks The End of Friendly Generational Relations”, where she argues that anti-boomer feeling has been fuelled by, “rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition, political polarization exacerbated by the internet, and the climate crisis.”

Google Trends graph of interest in the term ‘Ok Boomer’ over the last 12 months in the US.

The phrase is clearly a backlash to older generations misuse of the term ‘millennial’ as a pejorative towards any young person (even if they’re not technically a millennial), yet ‘Ok Boomer’ — which has had only a fraction of the societal influence as the use of ‘millennial’ as an insult — has been widely criticised by commentators, opinion writers and pundits in an attempt to whip up a moral panic about disrespectful attitudes towards older generations.

A piece in the British outlet ‘INews’ called the term “nasty and ageist”, while a New York Post article argued that “millennial's extreme hatred for Baby Boomers is totally unjustified.” Meanwhile, a highly critical piece in The Spectator criticised the phrase and a lack of respect for older generations, while simultaneously making the sort of sweeping generalisations about young people that inspired ‘Ok Boomer’ in the first place.

The writer of the piece shifted the blame off ‘baby boomers’ (“it’s not us baby boomer that are the problem”), arguing that young people were wrong to malign “old, privileged white men” and that their problems are due to them being, “self-righteous”, “undistinguished and boring”, and having “impoverished” ‘passions’. And, while previous generations were criticised during their youth for living hedonistic lifestyles, the writer decries reports that show young people exhibiting lower levels of alcohol consumption and being less promiscuous, asking, “If you can’t envy the sex lives of the young, what is the point of them?”

Many in the mainstream media consistently use the actions and beliefs of a small number of unrepresentative young people to form opinions about the group as a whole.

The article is just one of many highly critical pieces about the phrase’s new-found prominence that reflect how the ‘Ok Boomer’ phenomenon, instead of inspiring reflection about the concerns of and attitudes towards the young, has led people to dig their heels in regarding their beliefs towards Gen-Z and millennial's. The many hot takes inspired by the tongue-in-cheek phrase largely fail to consider nuances in Gen-Z’s attitudes towards their elders and towards the past in general. Though, such inaccuracies probably shouldn’t be surprising considering how many in the mainstream media consistently use the actions and beliefs of a small number of unrepresentative young people to form opinions about the group as a whole.

While ‘Ok Boomer’ has fuelled fears of a generational conflict, many who use the term will tell you that the phrase — which is clearly not meant to be taken as seriously as it is — refers more to an attitude and a mindset than a set age. Young people themselves aren’t automatically immune to the criticism and, neither are older people destined to find themselves on the receiving end of it. Ultimately, the idea that young people are dismissive of all old people and of past traditions is unsubstantiated.

Votes in the 2017 UK election by age group, source: YouGov

Indeed, in terms of politics, young people are more than willing to support older candidates; with the most popular candidate in the Democratic primary among 18–29 year olds being the oldest — Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-V.T.). Meanwhile, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-I.N.), who has made a name for himself as a fresh, young face, registers his lowest level of support with under 30’s. And, in the UK, Labour’s better-than-expected 2017 election result, under leader Jeremy Corbyn — who is a ‘baby boomer’ — , was widely attributed to historic levels of support among young people.

But, perhaps most interesting, is how millennial’s and Gen-Z are resisting the creative destruction of the modern age. Instead of reflexively resisting anything and everything from the past — as young people have been portrayed as doing — the youngest generations are instead looking to and embracing the certainty of the past, perhaps as a counter-reaction to the uncertainty and constant change that defines the 21st Century.

In fact, a 2017 piece in The Guardian argued that most of millennial’s “obsessions” were “borrowed from the boomers”; citing the revival of Polaroids, among other things, as the centre of this argument. The piece detailed an increasingly common (and new) phenomenon that is happening among millennial's and Gen-Z; being nostalgic for a time you weren’t alive for. (“historical nostalgia”)

‘Ok Boomer’ has been widely criticised by commentators, opinion writers and pundits in an attempt to whip up a moral panic about disrespectful attitudes towards older generations.

The list of areas where young people are drawing from the past — such as, 90’s fashion and TV (i.e. ‘Friends’) — is almost endless, but coupled with this “historical nostalgia” is the increasing trend towards stepping away from technology — especially, social media — with a growing mindfulness culture encouraging people to remove themselves from their phones and from social media platforms such as Instagram. And, while Gen Z have grown up in an age where it is easier than ever to connect with millions of people across the world, many believe the future of social media will be private — which would be a stark rejection of recent advancements made during the technology age.

Ultimately, the over-analysing of ‘Ok Boomer’ has masked the fact that the attitudes of young people towards the past defies easy labels and defies much of the current conventional wisdom. Gen-Z (and to a lesser extent millennial's) have grown up in an increasingly uncertain age; where the world five years ago looks radically different to the one today, which will undoubtedly looks radically different to the one that will come in five years time. Instead of being wholly dismissive to the past, Gen-Z is envious of the certainty it seemed to offer and are therefore basking in the nostalgia of an age they never got to experience. It’s not that young people are automatically dismissing anything and anyone past a certain age, instead they want to take the best parts of the past, while rejecting outdated beliefs and facing head on the challenges of the future.

Political analysis | Bylines: Rantt Media, Extra Newsfeed, PMP Magazine, Backbench, Dialogue and Discourse | Editor: Breakthrough

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