If you cling to outdated ideas, you are choosing to be left behind.
A relative recently reached out to express concern that I was sharing ageist sentiments on the Internet.
She didn't have to specify which content had bothered her. I knew she was talking about my attacks on "boomers."
It's become a common thread online for members of the baby boomer generation to accuse young people who use the phrase "OK Boomer" of being ageist, and I think it's worth addressing the concern in a bit more detail.
Just to start, it's important to acknowledge that ageism—discriminating against an individual based on their age—is a serious problem that affects both young and old, particularly when it comes to the workplace. Millennial and Gen z employees are often seen as naïve, unskilled, and exploitable, while baby boomers are perceived as slow, expensive, and expendable—unappealing hires and the first on the chopping block for lay-offs. It's an awful thing, and it's exactly the kind of inhuman, mercenary corporatism that is central to the emerging critique of "boomers" and the culture they've created.
As others have pointed out, "OK Boomer" should not really be thought of as an attack on any individual—let alone the vulnerable individuals who are materially harmed by ageism. While many no doubt use it recklessly, it can best be understood as an attack on entrenched power structures and the mindsets that prop them up: in particular, the political mindset that was molded by events stretching roughly from the "Summer of Love" through September 11th, 2001.
The boomer mindset formed largely in opposition to the supposed values of the Soviet Union and embraced individualism and self-actualization above the material conditions of a shared society. It was also, of course, formed in opposition to "The Greatest Generation," and it made some real strides in dissolving the rigid conformity and open racism that came to define their parents' era. The free-love movement, the anti-war movement, and much of the civil rights movement were products of baby boomers entering the cultural conversation, and they pushed society to change in a positive direction.
Unfortunately, while they could plainly see the problems of the world they were changing, they were unable to predict the problems of the world they were building. The embrace of individualism, which was so fundamental to their perspective, helped to acknowledge the nominal rights and freedoms of all people—regardless of race, sex, or (eventually) sexuality—but it was also a valuable tool in the effort to systematically undermine organized labor and the welfare state. Because when the individual is the key to understanding everything, personal responsibility is the only true duty of any citizen.
There is no reason, from this perspective, to concern ourselves with the ways in which systems that do not explicitly damage individual autonomy might impact broad cultural groups differently. It asserts that America has a meritocracy; so if a group is claiming unfair treatment, it's likely because the individuals in that group actually want access to some special treatment. Most importantly, taxes and regulations should always be cut, and business interests should be favored above all—because that's how you achieve endless economic growth, and "Big Government" just gets in the way of people helping themselves.
It's an ideology that proved itself successful in the economic growth of the Reagan '80s, along with "American Exceptionalism" and free-trade imperialism. And while many baby boomers might even be sympathetic to left-of-center politics, they've seen too many campaigns—Mondale, McGovern, Howard Dean—collide and collapse against the immovable monolith of these foundational Cold-War values. When the Democrats finally took back power in the '90s, it was because Bill Clinton knew how to reach across the aisle and give Republicans 80% of what they wanted. And the reason Hillary didn't win in 2016—according to this line of thinking—was that she listened too much to marginalized groups vying for special treatment…and because she's a woman.
You have to play it safe, they say. You can push for little changes, but you can't try to change everything all at once. That's not how the world works. It's an understandable position to take, given the historical context that formed it, but it's built on one shaky premise that is patently absurd to anyone born after 1985: that the world works.
For the generation that controls more than half the wealth in the nation—compared to Millennials' 3%—it must be easy to imagine that the world works. For the generation who saw their ideas turn into economic growth that actually benefited the middle class and assured that their lives would be better than their parents', it must be easy to imagine that progress is inevitable. For the generation that won't have to face disastrous environmental consequences as a result of the global industrialization that fueled all that growth, it must be easy to imagine that there is not an urgent need to make structural changes to our entire civilization…
A Plea for Humility
In Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, the protagonist spends all his time painting a desolate scene from the aftermath of World War II entitled Now It's the Women's Turn. The message of "OK, Boomer" is much the same. Your time has passed. You held onto power for long enough, and now the rest of us have to take charge to deal with the mess that's been left for us. Regardless of your confidence in the world you've built and the ideas that formed it, the time has come for some humility and some deference to the future.
So don't tell us how the world works when we can clearly see that it doesn't. We've heard what you have to say—we've been hearing it our entire lives—and we just don't care anymore. The social paradigms that formed the boundaries of political possibility in your era no longer apply. Your notions of "centrism"—tough on crime, soft on corporations—have pushed our country far to the right of the developed world and left us with unconscionable levels of mass incarceration and a truly shameful wealth gap.
Thankfully, you are outnumbered. Your children's generation is not only larger than yours it's more diverse; more socially, scientifically, and environmentally conscious; and more open to collectivist ideals. Hope, on the other hand—along with the mental health that requires it—is in short supply. If we continued to let your generation guide the political and cultural conversation, the last of that hope might just drain away.
So when you try to play the old hits for the thousandth time, it's safer just to tune you out. There are finally more of us than there are of you, and we deserve a chance to build our own movements, our own ideas, and our own society. In that process, it's necessary to discard the outdated ideas that brought us here—the toxic individualism, the adulation of wealth, and the "centrist" compromises that consolidate power while immiserating working people.
And there are some baby boomers—two presidential candidates, for instance—who are willing to help in that process. If you can get on board with Black Lives Matter, the Green New Deal, and trans rights, then you are welcome to join the dialogue. But if you are unwilling to see a lot of the ideas you grew up with be discarded, then the conversation will have to leave you behind. Ok, boomer?
In time, the changes we make will no doubt reveal their own set of flaws, but only our children will be qualified to diagnose them. They will tell us we're wrong in brand new ways, and we will no doubt resist and cry ageism and resent the upstarts putting us in our place. But for now, all we can see clearly are the ravages that the current power structure has wrought and the necessity of change. If you don't see it too, then it's time for you to take a back seat.
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