Updated: January 10, 2020 7:41:22 am
The meme-friendly “OK Boomer” phrase made its way off the Internet and on to the streets at the end of last year. In the United States, protesters delayed a football game between Harvard and Yale by storming the field while chanting the phrase, demanding the elite schools divest from fossil fuel companies.
In New Zealand, Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old lawmaker from the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, squelched an older lawmaker who was trying to interrupt her during the Parliament debate on the Zero Carbon Bill, delivering the put-down with a dismissive wave of her right hand, without bothering to look at her heckler.
The snub has now made its way to the ongoing protests in India’s streets, where young people have been spotted holding up signs, often with the word “Boomer” crossed out and replaced with “Sanghi”.
The phrase — a cutting Millennial retort to “out-of-touch” Baby Boomers with whom conversation is exhausting and fruitless — probably turned up first in 2015 on 4chan, an anonymous online message board, but it gained steam on TikTok only last year.
In one TikTok video, a grey-haired man rants about how Millennials and Generation Z have the “Peter Pan syndrome”: They “never want to grow up. If they think that the utopian ideals that they have in their youth are somehow going to translate into adulthood… you’re going to realise nothing’s free, that things aren’t equal, and that the utopian society created in your mind and in your youth simply is not sustainable”. Next to him, a young girl smiles — with two hearts and “OK BOOMER” sribbled in a notebook.
The “OK Boomer” jab has arrived at a time when Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) and many of Generation Z (between 1996 and 2015) are coming of age in a high-stakes and divisive political atmosphere. When used against (older) adults who judge their life decisions, gender expressions, and new-age values, the swipe underscores that it is the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946 to 1964) that has brought the world to the situation that it’s in now — hopelessly divided, in a state of deep economic uncertainty and financial anxiety, and teetering on the brink of environmental catastrophe.
“OK Boomer” expresses the frustration of young people with an inheritance that they feel is broken, conveys their rejection of parents-know-best condescension, and announces the giving up of all hope in the ability of the earlier generation to even see, let alone clean up, the mess that they have created. As the young New Zealand politician wrote in an Op-Ed in The Guardian, “My “OK boomer” comment in Parliament was off-the-cuff, albeit symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations set to inherit ever-amplifying problems in an ever-diminishing window of time.”
Expectedly, the snub has provoked a backlash. As the popularity of “OK Boomer” skyrocketed (there was merchandising, and some young people even attempted to trademark it), critics complained about an entitled and ageist slur that was rude and offensive at best and “equivalent to the n-word” at worst. Workplaces began to discuss the inappropriateness of the word “Boomer” itself. Some pointed out, smugly, that the phrase was a “passive admission as to who is really in charge”.
Of course, the resonance in India will be limited, never mind the cheeky posters in the youthful crowd. The “Baby Boomer” concept is rooted in the demographic history of the US, and is alien to India. Post-World War II couples reuniting during a prosperous time led to a subsequent surge in population in North America, along with a new confidence, better health, and unprecedented control over their circumstances. The situation in post-colonial India was totally different.
That said, intergenerational tensions may still have some universal expressions — especially in today’s interconnected, globalised world in which everything is everywhere at almost the same time. As more colleges and universities around the world become centres of dissent and more family WhatsApp groups the theatres of strong political disagreements, an Internet-fuelled generation will continue to make its voice heard — even if it is to ignore those before them.
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