As a baby boomer myself, I have mixed feelings about the latest linguistic weapon of generational warfare being deployed against us. Am I OK with “OK Boomer,” the flippant yet passive retort from millennials or members of Generation Z whenever anyone of my generation decries the dangers of e-scooters or overreactions to climate change?
I realize that whether I’m OK isn’t really the question. Still, I would characterize my reaction as irritated, put off and maybe a bit flattered.
On the positive side, my generation is being treated as a force of nature, a generation so strong and influential that it must be addressed by name. In so many debates today, being insulted is seen as a mark of importance. (For what it is worth, I don’t go around talking about “millennials” or “Generation X” or “Generation Z” very much — this column excepted, I suppose.) Furthermore, as an economist I see the word “boom” as having a generally positive connotation.
On the negative side, I worry that those who deploy “OK Boomer” are putting themselves down and signaling their own impotence. I am not arguing for “[Expletive Deleted] Boomer,” even though it would have a vitality and rebellious spirit very much reminiscent of the 1960s or 1970s (which of course were quintessential boomer eras). But when I read or hear “OK Boomer,” I start to think there might be something special about baby boomers after all. We boomers may not be different in kind from other generations, but we do seem to inspire rhetorical creativity in our critics.
The closest earlier analog to “OK Boomer” is probably “OK, Chief,” a slightly sardonic response to a bossy or persistent request. So the phrase “OK Boomer” is itself an implicit and indeed somewhat passive admission as to who is really in charge. Members of Gen Z are subtly demonstrating that the clichés about them may have a grain of truth.
As I said I am a baby boomer, born in 1962, and I do a lot of public speaking about such topics as the absence of free lunches in this world. Yet I have never heard anyone say “OK Boomer” back to me. Instead I see the phrase on social media — another sign of the essentially passive nature of the response. (And wearing an “OK Boomer” hoodie or buying other such merchandise doesn’t seem like a major sign of rebellion, either.)
If there is any native medium for the “OK Boomer” meme, in fact, it is short TikTok videos, one of the more evanescent forms of social media. That the site seems plagued by Chinese censorship is just another state of affairs that boomers find more offensive than does Generation Z.
My biggest worry about “OK Boomer” is the generational stereotyping it embodies. It wouldn’t be acceptable to criticize baldly older people simply for being old. So why is it OK to use a circumlocution that does the same thing? “You old fogeys don’t have a clue” is perhaps a more direct translation of the phrase, and I am not sure that the ostensibly greater politeness of “OK Boomer” is a virtue. Would we think much of any boomer wearing a T-shirt proclaiming, “Not Impressed, Kid,” “Sure, Kiddo” or “Nice Try, Kid”?
I am greatly pleased that the post-boomer generations are by all appearances less racist and sexist than their predecessors. Still, prejudices are part of human nature. There is always a danger that they will re-emerge, redirected at other targets — defined by their age, their political views, their wealth, the size of their carbon footprint, or some other salient variable. Prejudice doesn’t become acceptable simply because it is not directed at someone’s race, ethnicity or gender.
I don’t wish to use this column to proclaim myself or to ask for anyone else’s “OK,” sarcastically or otherwise. I’ll simply note in closing that the growing age segregation of American society is a great tragedy and a foregone opportunity. If younger generations are looking for yet another good cause, that would be a very good one to embrace.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”