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Sunday 8 December 2019

Tanya Sweeney: 'OK Boomer' is the latest weapon in the war between generations

Retort: New Zealand politician Chloe Swarbrick invoked the term when an older colleague interrupted her
Retort: New Zealand politician Chloe Swarbrick invoked the term when an older colleague interrupted her

Tanya Sweeney

Internet wars are nothing new, but in terms of pure hostility, nothing beats a baby boomer pitted against a millennial.

And by now, this war even has its own catchphrase - 'OK Boomer', a term used to dismiss those born between 1946 and 1964. And a repartee that the boomers, in turn, appear to find ageist and dismissive. It's basically the 'you can't buy houses because of avocado brunches' moment of 2019.

The phrase originated after a video of an unidentified older man surfaced, in which he declared that millennials and Generation Z have Peter Pan syndrome and 'think that the utopian ideals that they have in their youth somehow translate into adulthood'. 'OK boomer' seems as logical a response as any to that, but it's become a catch-all term to mock anyone who's out of touch, condescending, narrow-minded and resistant to things like technology and climate change. In fact, the retort was used in New Zealand parliament, when 25-year-old Chloe Swarbrick invoked the term when an older colleague interrupted her speech on climate change.

The New York Times have called the meme "a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids" and an "endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don't get it." It's a rally cry against all the actions - political, environmental, economic - of forebears that has the world the way it is. And the fact that it has gone airborne is proof enough of which generation has their hand, culturally, on the rudder here.

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The boomers, meanwhile, reckon that youngsters have never had it so good and have gotten their pants in a bunch over the dismissal, thus starting a whole new game of 'who's the snowflake here?' And on it goes.

So what's the 'it' that boomers reportedly don't get?

Historically, boomers have benefited the most from the pension and property boons. They bought houses or invested in shares at precisely the right time in history, and many of them are now cruising into retirement with an asset to cushion the land. Millennials and Generation Z, meanwhile, have grown up and come of age in the era of the gig economy, and a work culture without structure or job security. With their collective hand forced, they've developed a rather jazzy entrepreneurial flair. It's something that many boomers in the nine-to-five mould find narcissistic, not to mention threatening (odd, given that boomers were the first generation to focus on personal development and self-help).

Let's be fair, intergenerational tension is nothing new.

Popular/youth culture gets lost in translation through the ages, while some have a harder time passing the mantle to a more socially/financially dominant demographic.

Linda Gravett and Robin Throckmorton, authors of Bridging The Generation Gap, unearthed plenty of interesting data while researching their book. Sixty eight per cent of Baby Boomers feel that "younger people" have poor work ethics, which in turn makes their own workload even harder. Millennials, meanwhile, feel they have had to fashion a work ethic they're not given enough credit for. Besides, bootstrapping one's way to success is outdated and barely feasible in the current climate.

Think of the way each respective generation arrived into the workplace. For many boomers, catching that first professional break was often a game of chance: a lucky break somewhere that prompted them into a long slog up the career ladder. Their successors, meanwhile, arrive into the workplace with post-grad degrees (often overqualified, in fact), technological nous and well-formed ideas. With their elders less than enthused about letting them near the top table without a level of due paying, no wonder there's conflict.

In A Generation of Sociopaths, author Bruce Gibney argues that the boomer generation are marked by rampant egoism and a shocking lack of empathy for younger generations. They have racked up debt, fired through natural resources and slowed economic growth, he notes. We've all been conditioned to believe that things get better for the generation that comes after us, but in the case of millennials and Gen-Z… well, that's not likely to be the case, is it?

In an ideal world, each respective party could learn from each other. Boomers could often do with a dollop of the hustle and youthful vim that younger co-workers have. Though they're not likely to admit it, the latter could learn plenty from their elders' expertise and experience. Alas, we live in a culture where youth and precociousness is a potent currency, even more so than hard-won wisdom. It's synonymous with energy, enthusiasm and a lot of miles left on the clock. It would take a lot to not feel threatened by that. And when you think about it, is it any wonder that 'OK Boomer' - the condescending kiss-off that's so sure in and of itself that youth trumps everything - took off the way it did?

Of course, Generation Z (aged 24 and younger) are now rising up the ranks. Youngsters like Billie Eilish and Greta Thunberg are commanding their share of attention. Thus far, Gen Z have barely been afforded an identity of their own with all the kerfuffle about millennials. Which means of course that they've not yet been subject to scrutiny, ergo the prejudices, that millennials face. Yet once that all happens… well, pass the popcorn emoji. Mark my words; the memes will be something else.

Irish Independent

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