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What Does ‘OK Boomer’ Mean And Why Does Gen Z Keep Saying It?

The viral phrase built for memes also deserves to be taken seriously.

It’s an age-old story. Someone — always older, often a man and often white — shares an opinion on something. “Kids these days don’t know how hard we had it,” or “when I was your age we walked to school uphill both ways.”

Then, in overwhelming numbers, comes some variation of the response.

“OK boomer.”

It happened earlier this week, when Oscar-winning movie director Martin Scorsese — who, for the record, was born in 1942 and actually pre-dates most Boomers — wrote an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema.”

“For anyone who dreams of making movies or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art,” Scorsese wrote.

The replies were quick and dripping with distaste for the “old way” of doing things.

Often preceded by a casual “lol” that phrase — “OK boomer” — is the rallying cry of a generation, albeit one delivered with a smarmy eye-roll. There are “OK boomer” hoodies, “OK boomer” songs and “OK boomer” hashtags. We are living in the age of “OK boomer.”

This blunt putdown of the “Baby Boomer” generation of people like Scorsese — largely defined as people born in the post-Second World War period of 1944 to 1965 — usually comes in response to older people who just don’t get it, or who call younger generations “sheltered.” It’s an expression, albeit a flippant one, that in fact it’s the older generations who don’t understand things.

"OK boomer" merchandise for sale on bonfire.com.
"OK boomer" merchandise for sale on bonfire.com.

It’s become so ubiquitous, Dictionary.com published a definition of the phrase.

“While many baby boomers were connected to youth counterculture in the 1960-70s, they have since become blamed in the 2010s by people in younger generations for many societal woes, from the high cost of college tuition to the failure to address climate change,” the website writes. “This blame has contributed to the negative connotation of boomer, which — as seen in a phrase like OK boomer — dismisses a person from that generation (and older people more generally) as out of touch, close-minded, and part of the problem.”

The phrase is quite literally everywhere. It’s invading American politics.

There’s a song.

And even the grammar nerds are weighing in.

Origins

While everyone of all ages loves to hate on Boomers, “OK boomer” is largely attributed to Generation Z — the newest generation, comprised of people born from the mid-’90s on. Gen Z makes up roughly 17.6 per cent of Canada’s total population, according to 2017 Statistics Canada data .

For the record, I have some authority on this. I was born in 1995 and thus straddle the line of “Gen Z” and “Millennial” — no one can agree on what year each starts. The greatest way to describe my “cusp of Gen Z” status is that I barely remember Vine, but I’m still trying to figure out TikTok.

Experts say that millennials are most notably defined as people who remember the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“If 9/11 has always been history to you—and not something you personally remember—then you are not a Millennial; you are Gen Z,” says Jason Dorsey, an expert on generational divides.

WATCH: What Gen Z brings to the work-life balance equation. Story continues below.

Why does that difference matter? Gen Z is defined by rapidly changing technology and also the impending doom of our future. It’s largely considered a more hopeful generation than millennials and with a greater sense of urgency. Millennials watched the world get worse. Gen Z sees it, and wants to change it.

Having grown up with the internet, people like to say that Gen Z can adapt, change and learn quickly. Between the time I started middle school in 2006 and graduated high school in 2013, not only did the IPhone launch, it went through seven different variations. I went from classrooms with carts full of bubbled old Macbooks we used once a week to being able to google literally every question that comes up in everyday life, every day. And all of this happened as millenials and Gen Z were growing up and developing a sense of self.

We have more access to finding and sharing information than any generation before, and there are millions of young people in the same boat, or even further along. It’s just a matter of convincing other generations to change and adapt too.

WATCH: Greta Thunberg tears into world leaders at climate summit. Story continues below.

A big part of that has to do with the climate crisis. If Gen Z could elect a representative, Greta Thunberg comes to the top of mind. She’s looking to older generations and saying “how dare you” with all of the awareness and adaptability embodied by Gen Z.

“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: we will never forgive you,” Thunberg said at the UN climate summit earlier this year.

“OK boomer” takes that betrayal by older generations Thunberg speaks of, and layers it with humourous indifference. It’s an eye-roll to older generations who don’t fully grasp what’s going on.

It’s treating older generations — particularly the resource-sucking baby boomers — with the same condescending indifference they so often give to young people and the issues that matter to them.

“Rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition, political polarization exacerbated by the internet, and the climate crisis all fuel anti-boomer sentiment,” writes Taylor Lorenz for the New York Times.

And you know what? My fellow Gen Zers are right. Boomers have messed up a lot of things. In his book, “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America”, Bruce Cannon Gibney argues that baby boomers have left behind a mess of costly wars, low taxation, and ignoring climate changes for younger generations to clean up.

The world is on the brink of climate collapse. And why are we on the brink of climate collapse? A lot of it has to do with freewheeling boomer-led resource extraction and fossil fuel development.

What can we do about it? We can march with Greta and call for policy change. We can vote in elections. But when you encounter some old person — or Martin Scorsese – telling you not to care or that what matters to you isn’t important, sometimes it’s easier to treat them with the same flippance while you continue on to make the change.

A slur? Not so fast

Not everyone’s a fan of the phrase, especially — in a move shocking no one — boomers. Earlier this week, conservative radio host Bob Lonsberry tweeted about the phrase, claiming that “boomer” is “the n-word of ageism.”

“Being hip and flip does not make bigotry ok, nor is a derisive epithet acceptable because it is new,” Lonsberry wrote in his now-deleted tweet.

For the record, the two are not comparable. The fact that Lonsberry WOULDN’T EVEN WRITE one of those words says a lot. One word is definitely worse if you won’t even say it.

And amidst the hundreds of “OK boomer” responses to Lonsberry’s tweet, the official Dictionary.com Twitter account even waded into the fray to settle the record.

You know it’s serious when the dictionary gets involved.

Ultimately, “OK Boomer” is not a slur. It’s a way for younger generations to respond to an endless torrent of condescension and put-downs from older folks. It’s optimistic and nihilistic all rolled up into one, two-word package. And admittedly, it makes for some great TikToks.

Expect a lot of “OK boomer” signs at your next climate protest. But don’t cast them aside — it’s a phrase optimized for the TikTok generation, yes, but it also carries a lot of weight.

When we say “OK boomer,” we’re saying “you won’t help us fix this, so we’re going to do it ourselves.” When we say it, we’re acknowledging a failure of older generations to support the next one, a failure people like Greta Thunberg talk about every day. “OK boomer” is a rallying cry for the future and a way of acknowledging not only that the next generation feels like we have to go it alone, we’re prepared to.

That’s all to say, if you don’t believe in the younger generations or take all this seriously, I’ve got one thing to say:

“OK boomer.”