It’s happening again. The arguing. The screaming. The storming up the stairs and slamming of the bedroom door. The battle of the ages rages on, as zoomers and boomers square off in a cross-generational grudge match that threatens to ruin the Internet for everybody. (And as Gen Xers roll their collective eyes at both factions and weigh whether to get involved. That’s a no.)
Boomers have had a rough go of it on the Internet, considering some of them invented the thing. I remember the first wave of anti-boomer irony breaking on the shores of the Internet in the late ’90s, when things like Earthlink accounts and Geocities pages stood as winking indicators that your parents had figured out how to get online.
And this ironic contempt has seemed to ripen into outright hostility over the course of 25 years, as parents and grandparents continue flocking to Facebook and younger users flee to the more fleeting pleasures of TikTok and Instagram. Just this past year I got sucked into the phenomenon of Facebook groups in which members “pretend to be boomers," adopting tech-challenged mannerisms and affectations to comedic effect — a kind of super snotty theater of the absurd. (Boomenschanz?)
Of course, this boomer bias has boomeranged right back at millennials, an equally besieged generation online for ostensibly “killing” dozens of tried-and-true industries and institutions (from napkins to handshakes to Alpo) all while allegedly downing a steady diet of Tide pods and sinking the economy. (No, they might say if I asked any, it sunk us.)
In fact, boomers and millennials have spent so long squabbling that they hardly noticed an entirely new generation sprung up online, right under their thumbs. It’s Gen Z, and they’ve already had enough of your incessant bickering. This is my kind of generation.
And nowhere is Gen Z’s absolute zero threshold for The Nonsense of the Internet Elders more apparent than in the crystallized zing of “OK, Boomer” — a precision-crafted, one-size-fits-all zing that has emerged as the fresh-faced Internet’s favorite way to instantly discount, dismiss, and deflect criticism from the generation that, well, kinda wrecked the Earth for them.
Are they wrong? I have no idea. Again, Gen X: don’t care. But the soaring popularity of “OK, Boomer” — which has recently launched itself from the esoteric realms of Tumblr posts, tweets, and catty GIFs into the mainstream via sweat shirts, caps, and pop songs — suggests that it’s not just some cutting catch phrase enjoying a moment of viral heat, but a crystallization of something toxic in the air.
This past week in New Zealand, 25-year-old MP Chlöe Swarbrick was speaking on climate change and was heckled by fellow parliamentarian (and opposition spokesman) Todd Muller.
“OK, Boomer” she said, barely breaking to fling the jab. It was too fast for anyone in the chamber to process, but the Internet has been gobbling it for days. And the predictably emerging question of whether “OK, Boomer” is actually not a clever rhetorical reclamation of power but rather a disingenuous delivery vessel for ageism has started to make “OK, Boomer” seem not as OK. (To boomers, mostly.)
“My biggest worry about ‘OK, Boomer’ is the generational stereotyping it embodies,” writes Tyler Cowen in a Bloomberg piece that laments “the growing age segregation of American society” (and yet opts for the title “OK Kids. This Boomer Has Had Enough"). “It wouldn’t be acceptable to baldly criticize older people simply for being old. So why is it OK to use a circumlocution that does the same thing?” Apparently those millennials haven’t gotten around to killing irony.
At the Guardian, writer Bhaskar Sunkara sees “OK Boomer” as an excuse to ignore the root causes of global economic disparities that are wreaking havoc on every generation. “Rather than scoff at the relative privileges of a few, we should be trying to re-create some of the conditions that made life a bit better during the postwar years ‘boomers’ were born into,” he writes.
One way enterprising Gen Z types are trying to do just that is by cashing in on “OK, Boomer.” The Times ran a report of the virtual economy that has flourished around “the end of friendly generational relations," revealing a sprawling marketplace of apparel, phone cases, and various knick-knacks emblazoned with the phrase.
“The reason we make the ‘OK Boomer’ merch,” said one teenager interviewed, “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.” The other reason, I’m guessing, is that “stickers, socks, shirts, leggings, posters, water bottles, notebooks and greeting cards” are essential to saving the environment. (OK, Zoomer.)
So, once again, a seeming sign of life from within the void of the Internet turns out to be just another bogus commodification of dissent, as a particularly wise vanguard Gen Xer labeled it way back in the comparably lucid ’90s. That was back when we didn’t have an Internet to announce our disdain for those we suspected of making our lives so lame — instead of memes we had zines, instead of farming likes we formed bands, instead of “OK, Boomer” we had “OK Computer," and none of us (except Radiohead) made any money.
“You can keep talking,” the same teen said to the Times, addressing boomers, “but we’re going to change the future.” (No, they might say if I asked any, it will change you.)