My dad, a Boomer, is full of ideas. He’s a serial entrepreneur who’s built his whole life around thinking outside of the box. And he’s not shy about offering suggestions about novel ways my sister and I could approach our own career challenges and opportunities.
Why not meld my passions for writing and performing and make a go of it as a rapper, he once proposed to me. Had my defense lawyer sister ever considered talking smack about the prosecutor to the jury?
For years, my sister and I resisted his more colorful suggestions, spelling out why they weren’t attractive or even feasible, often leading to long conversations in which he would become increasingly insistent that we were simply being lazy or timid. We’d leave family get-togethers frustrated and drained.
This went on until we found the magic method to instantly defuse the conversation. Now when my dad suggests that I speak to a U.K. director I’m auditioning for exclusively in a British accent (why? “To make her feel at home!”), I respond with a simple “OK!”
“OK, Dad,” I’ll say, keeping my tone positive and warm, delighted not to have to explain to him why that idea is insane. “I’ll think about that!”
I don’t intend to insult him or offend him. It is, to me, an affectionate, relationship-saving way of saying, “I recognize and appreciate your desire to confer wisdom and guidance. But I’m going to go ahead and do things my way, while saving both of us from an unproductive argument and hurt feelings.”
Could the meme-ified catchphrase “OK boomer” serve the same purpose?
“OK boomer” went viral earlier this year on the social media video platform TikTok, where an audio clip of a Baby Boomer lecturing young people about the folly of their “utopian ideals” inspired thousands of teens to respond with variations on a single retort: “OK boomer.”
The teens who gave life to “OK boomer” are members of Gen Z, but once the meme made the jump from TikTok to Twitter, Millennials picked it up and ran with it. The spirit behind those two words has varied from user to user, running the gamut from lighthearted to cutting. And the response has varied too, though many of the AARP set found the meme dismissive and insulting. Hackles are up. A senior vice president of AARP, Myrna Blyth, 80, retorted in a recent interview: "Okay, millennials, but we're the people that actually have the money."
Subsequent news coverage has stoked the generational feud between Boomers on one side and Millennials and Gen Z on the other (largely ignoring Gen X, whose members are accustomed to being overlooked in everything from the culture wars to the field of 2020 presidential nominees).
At 38, I’m among the oldest Millennials — those born on the leading edge of the generation in 1981. My husband is 13 years my senior, firmly Gen X. Our parents are Boomers in their 70s, all of them only semi-retired. And my stepkids are members of Gen Z, in their freshman and junior years of college. Here we all are together in 2019, in a world that feels like it’s careening faster and faster toward a slew of disasters, many of which arose on the Boomers’ watch.
And in the face of those disasters, a rallying cry has emerged. “OK boomer” is a way of saying, in certain contexts (i.e. the climate crisis, gun safety, massive income inequality, evolving notions of gender identity and parity), “We’ve got some ideas of our own on how to proceed here, and we’re going to go ahead and do it.” It’s a deflection, not an attack. If it’s dismissive, it’s of a certain set of attitudes, judgments, and approaches that are foisted on younger generations, not of an entire age group (many of whom share younger folks’ frustrations with the status quo).
I still turn to “OK, Dad” when it seems like the most efficient way to move past a thorny subject. I also still turn to my dad whenever I have a major life or work decision to talk through. I value his perspective, rely on his input, and will feel profoundly unmoored when I no longer have the opportunity to solicit his advice. (Incidentally, when I asked him for his take on “OK boomer,” he said, “I think it’s right on!”)
In the words of notable Boomer David Bowie, “These children that you spit on / as they try to change their worlds / are immune to your consultations. / They're quite aware of what they're goin' through. / Don't tell them to grow up and out of it. / Where's your shame? / You've left us up to our necks in it.”
Thanksgiving is around the corner — a time for families to gather and multiple generations to share food, laughter, and conversation. In this time of increasing division, grievance, and self-righteousness, we could all stand to approach each other with a little more humility, humor, and self-awareness. I’ll try if you will. OK, Boomer?