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Entertainment & Arts

Column: Relax, boomers. You’re OK, just old

An archival photograph from the Woodstock Festival featured in “Woodstock: The Three Days That Defined a Nation.”
The Woodstock Festival featured in “Woodstock: The Three Days That Defined a Nation.”
(Doug Lenier / Museum at Bethel Woods)

You OK, boomer?

After all those anti-establishment placards and slogans, the years of controlling the vernacular and riding herd on the culture, it’s tough to be reduced to a catchphrase. Sent your way, you might add, by people “discovering” corduroy hip huggers and bong collections.

I mean, you made youth culture a thing, your thing, and now look what’s happened. You, mercifully, did not die before you got old, which means you got old. And despite your insistence that 70 is the new 30, 30 is not the new 10 and 20-year-olds still exist. Which means that, on top of all the knee problems and hip problems and weed getting legalized with no one thanking you for it even though you basically invented weed, you have to deal with a bunch of whippersnappers throwing “OK, boomer” shade on sweatshirts and TikTok.

Not that you’re 100% sure what TikTok is and why can’t everyone just stay on Twitter and Facebook? You at least understand Twitter and Facebook. That’s probably where you read about the conservative radio host saying “boomer” was the age equivalent of the “n-word” (which, well, words fail me) and that’s where you went to express your own outrage over getting dissed by a bunch of kids who never had to walk nine miles through snow just to protest the Vietnam War.

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In fact, you probably had no idea the phrase “OK boomer” was being slung around in memes and gifs on various platforms that are not Twitter and Facebook until the New York Times wrote about it. And frankly, being unaware of the happenings among young people until the New York Times writes about it is possibly The Most Boomer Thing Ever. Even for those who work at the Times — a few days later Maureen Dowd wrote about getting “OK boomered” by “the 27-year-old in my office” to whom she has turned to for help in deciphering “what makes the TikTok generation tick.”

I am not sure there is such a thing as a “TikTok generation,” though it definitely sounds like the most fun generation ever. And it’s certainly a better name than, say, “extreme weather caused by global warming” generation.

But I am not convinced there is any generation, in the shared experience/personality sense; the baby boom was named, as you will note, for its size. The collective narrative of protest and upheaval followed by rank consumerism and self-satisfaction that the term has come to denote is most certainly not shared by every person born within those years.

Technically, I am a boomer, born at the tail end of the 1946-1964 definition, but I do not identify as one (such a Gen Z term, right?). I got shoulder pads and yuppies rather than love beads and hippies. Air Supply instead of Jefferson Airplane, “St. Elmo’s Fire” rather than “Easy Rider.”

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Indeed, the most enduring legacy of the boomers, also known for a while as the me generation, may be the notion of generational identification. Gertrude Stein famously coined the term the “lost generation” for those who came of age during WWI but she was talking mainly about writers. Hilariously, the generation that preceded, and indeed produced, the boom is known as the silent generation.

“Gen X” is the moniker that stuck to the generation following the boom, and what on earth does that mean? Nothing except not a boomer.

Which is pretty much the whole point of “OK, boomer”: That all this generational identification is, at best, nonsense and, at worst, an attempt by certain members of the baby boom generation to continue to define everyone else in relationship to themselves. Or how they define themselves — when a child I know dressed as a hippie for Halloween, a man at one house she visited remarked, “Oh, you’re dressed as a future Republican.” So, obviously, feelings still run high.

Still, it must be hard when, having belonged to a group that was identified as revolutionary, influential and cool, you are dismissed by folks you consider, as a group, lazy, ill-informed and self-entitled. In other words, the same way adults in the 1950s saw members of the baby boom.

The anger you once righteously aimed at “the system” is now often being directed at you. Despite all your sit-in/antiwar/antiapartheid/feminist/Greenpeace credentials, you suddenly stand accused of being part of the problem. Just because you helpfully point out the numerous flaws of the millennials and Gen Z, their “safe spaces,” personal pronoun use and workplace demands.

These are, after all, the folks who dare to push back against Martin Scorsese for saying wiseguy movies are more emotionally challenging than superhero movies. People who don’t understand the horror of hearing the Rolling Stones in a car commercial. Who know Bob Dylan not as the gravelly-voiced revolutionary but as the guy who won a Nobel Prize, and how much more establishment can you get?

In other words, young people. Boomers have hogged the spotlight and taken heat for years, been blamed and lauded for just about everything. Woodstock changed the nation, the me generation broke America. But “OK, boomer” isn’t about history or culture; it’s just the latest iteration of “OK, grandpa.”

Which stings, of course it does, but guess what? This is exactly how it’s supposed to work. Social progression is fueled in large part by generational tension.

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We all love to say we want to make the world better for future generations, the implication being that whoever is saying this has the correct vision and the ability to make it happen. But when those future generations have a different idea, or demand deeper revisions — gun control, say, or a serious commitment to slow climate change, a rethinking of the way groups of people are described or the structure of the traditional workplace — well, that’s taking things a bit too far.

Who do these kids think they are anyway? Fully enfranchised citizens with rights? Who are they to suggest that the generation that gave us increased sexual freedom, advanced civil rights and invented tie-dye might have a thing or two to learn? These are the kids who got trophies just for showing up. Right?

I swear if I hear one more thing about those damn trophies or the languishing work ethic of anyone under 40, if I see one more person over 40 tear themselves away from their smartphones or laptops just long enough to complain about young people being addicted to screens, I will burn all the bras.

Ironically enough, when we aren’t deriding the snowflake status of the millennials or Gen Z, we are decrying the pressure they are under. Those lazy, self-entitled young people went through an education system that was, for the most part, ratcheted up to the point that my kids were doing math in middle school that we didn’t learn until college. There are fewer and fewer employment options that do not require a college education and college is tougher to get into and afford than it has ever been. (Seriously, if you can figure out how to get a 4.2 GPA, while playing varsity sports, starting your own babysitting business and volunteering, do you even need a college education?)

But their trophies! (Which, by the way, we gave them.)

So come on, boomers, stop being snowflakes. You are OK, you’re just getting old. Yes, we’re all a long way from the Haight and most of us never got there in the first place. But Jane Fonda was arrested for protesting and anyway, “OK, boomer” is not an insult, it’s a badge of honor. The fight continues. Go ahead and argue that social media and the digital economy have as many dangers as benefits. Texting your emotions and taking naked selfies can get folks into trouble. But just remember that “free love” and “turn on, tune in and drop out” did too.

Seventy isn’t the new 30, but it is a very new kind of 70, which is why the young folk even bother talking about you. So take the win.

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And know that the moment boomers understand how to use TikTok, TikTok is done.


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