On October 29, New York Times writer Taylor Lorenz unleashed hell with her piece, “‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations,” which described how TikTok users and teens across the internet use the phrase to dismiss the outdated politics of conservative Baby Boomers. As these cycles tends to go, however, the phrase rapidly went from endearing meme to critical talking point, with everyone from late night hosts to leftist organizers debating its veracity and effectiveness.
The consensus among adults, after countless op-eds and Twitter threads, is that “OK, boomer” is ageist, and denies older generations the ability to organize with their younger cohort. But was that even the point of the meme in the first place? So I, the Jezebel staffer who has most recently been a teen, talked to Ashley Reese, also formerly a teen, about the whole thing, in an attempt to pry the discourse back from the gaping maw it was rapidly entering.
Joan: Ashley—as one relatively young person to another, I feel like there are literally too many grown-ass adults debating a teen meme made by relatively well-off TikTok users to describe their apathy to their grandparents. Why do you think everyone is losing their mind about this?
Ashley: So here’s the thing: I think some people are acting in good faith with their critiques of the “ok boomer” meme and overall ire at people over the age of 55. Most of the criticism I’ve seen has come from people who are pointing out that low-income baby boomers, non-white baby boomers, and other people of that generational cohort who lack the systematic power of, say, a Koch brother, are not the ones who deserve the brunt of Millennial or Gen Z ire. The problem is... I don’t think anyone is doing that.
Joan: Exactly. I think Bhaskar Sunkara, in an essay for The Guardian, gets closest in gesturing towards this very real, and very important critique. He writes: “Like much of online culture, ‘OK Boomer’ tells us something about the cultural dominance of upper-middle-class youth. These young people are surrounded by baby boomers who’ve ‘hoarded all the wealth’ and polluted the planet in the process. They haven’t had to witness—or deal with the ramifications of—old age and precarity for millions of working people in that generational cohort.”
As someone who’s been using TikTok since its inception—and by the way, it’s much better than Vine ever was—the teens I’ve seen wielding “OK Boomer” are largely white high schoolers. The same, I might add, that are currently doing “rich kid checks” and posing with their BMWs and indoor gyms for clout. “OK Boomer” was never, and will never be, some sweeping generational analysis of the failings of the boomer generation. I think it’s just a bunch of suburban, middle-class teems rebelling against their mostly white grandparents who don’t like the fact that gay people and cuss words exist.
Ashley: I was intrigued by writer Malcolm Harris’s suggestion that the plight of marginalized boomers doesn’t weaken generalizations about the generation or its mores, but actually acts as a stronger indictment of them:
Also, once a meme goes viral, it’s only a matter of time before the way it is used changes. I mean, have you seen that Real-Housewives-of-Beverly-Hills-woman-yelling-at-cat meme recently? It looks like what started as just some well off white kids clowning their grandparents on TikTok turned into something a little more cutting as it spread and got picked up (some may say ruined) by pressed Millennials.
Joan: Yes! Malcolm makes a good point. I also think “OK Boomer” is a perfect lens through which we can gauge how young, white suburban people view older generations, much, much differently than their non-white peers.
Ashley: I agree! I mean, coming from a black perspective I also kind of wonder if there’s a knee-jerk element of “respect your elders” in here, in that black people and other POC don’t think white people necessarily value theirs the same extent that we do. Still, I think acting like there isn’t any inter-generational beef among non-white people is also absurd. Get some black Millennials and Gen Z’ers in a room with Boomers and talk about the 2020 election, see what happens.
Joan: I also understand why some older leftists might feel wary of criticisms that lean too heavily on generational divides—knowing how shaky those are in the first place. But I’ve recently seen a lot of pleas to shift the sentiment to “OK Billionaire,” or other gestures at the ruling class, which sort of collapses a whole lot of nuance, I think! (Although I agree it’s good to mock billionaires at any chance we get.) I just don’t know why we have to act like young people can’t have legitimate criticisms of older generations. It feels extremely disingenuous, and again, I don’t think that any of this was even the point of the meme in the first place! The whole thing sort of reminds me of those troll emails we get when we cover women critically—mostly #girlbosses—that accuse us of setting back the women’s rights movement for pointing out that women can be bad too. Two things can be true at the same time!
Ashley: Exactly. It has a whiff of “Not all [insert dominant group]!” Of course we’re not implicating every single person born between 1945 and 1965 as The Enemy when we deride Boomers, crassly joke about Boomers dying out, or even say “OK Boomer” (which is probably on its last leg anyway, as its been worn beyond repair in the last two weeks). Boomers act as an imperfect stand in for a regressive set of class and social values that may not be exclusive to that generation, but have been upheld and implemented by them for decades. And yes, some of these regressive values can even be shared from non-white boomers, working class boomers, etc.
Still, this is a meme. It’s funny. It’s dismissive. It’s rude. It’s a simple little fuck you to people who have shitty conservative politics and bootlicker mentality. It calls out people who appear complicit. It holds meaning, but it’s not deep to the point of warranting a personal essay as to why “OK Boomer” erases your abuela or something.
Joan: Yeah, I also think that the response to “OK Boomer” has really exposed the cogs in online opinion generation and the “content machine.” Which, if I might add, is also how I felt after the VSCO Girl Crisis. Teens make a dumb joke, adults on the internet extrapolate its meaning and claim it’s indicative an entire generation, the takes become more numerous than actual examples of VSCO girls themselves, and the cycle continues with the next thing. Here, the next thing is “OK Boomer.” And while social media was definitely ever present when I was in high school, and my classmates and I had been arguing about the discourse on Tumblr since middle school—I can’t imagine what it would have been like if every little dumb joke we made was turned into a grift by extremely online adults. Horrifying!
Ashley: Another side effect of a less insular internet. I’m a few years older than you, so when I was in high school, social media platforms of choice were MySpace and Facebook (and LiveJournal if you were a weirdo like me). I’m imagining in-depth articles about the “O RLY” owl right now and want to die. I think that there are a lot of important discussions to be had about generational divides.
I think we need to have them. They’re real, they exist, they have real life implications (especially fiscal ones). But using “OK Boomer” as a vehicle for these discussions is absolutely absurd. Let Gen Z have their goofy little meme without dissecting the fuck out of it!
Joan: Yes! I also think that my time on Tumblr debating politics with my friends and making dumb political memes was incredibly instructive! Sure, I had to actually go on to read about the ideas in more coherent ways from other writers and theorists—your Marx jokes get much funnier when you’ve slogged through Das Kapital—but kids are fucking smart! Recent teens like me are still figuring it out, sure. But many of us have also gone on to be writers, theorists, and activists. The circle of life continues!