Notes on OK Boomer

“OK Boomer” is a savagely effective dismissal. The equivalent of an eyeroll, it lets every Millennial and Gen Zer express tired disappointment with a generation that is (statistically speaking) out-of-touch on issues like the climate crisis, the economy, and progressive politics. The pieces assembled in our Winter 2020 issue, each of them brought to life by illustrator Connor Phillips, consider how we got into this Boomer-crafted world in the first place and what we might do moving forward.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary, in “OK! OK Boomer: the Critical Theory of Contemporary Angst,” offers an analysis of generational politics that forefronts class consciousness. Chaudhary argues that the post-war period in the US gave us a unique period of economic growth, fed by conditions that are never coming back no matter how much many Boomers (and people of younger generations who agree with them) might wish. Those economic conditions produced an ideology that has a longer life than the economy that structured it; OK Boomer is a “general intuitive rage” against a midcentury-birthed structure of feeling.

For “Parenting and Property: the Prodigal Son in Modern Life,” Allyson Healey pores over a set of four paintings from 1880. James Jacques-Joseph Tissot, a French society painter who experienced a religious awakening, reimagined the Bible’s parable of the prodigal son of forgiveness and grace as a tale of modern industry and imperial expansion in which a son leaves his merchant father in London to travel the globe and wastefully spend his early inheritance. The parable, when reset in “modern life,” concerns “intergenerational conflict centered around the fair distribution of wealth and property” that mirrors the discourse about responsible, steady Boomers and wasteful, carefree Millennials. In question is the responsibility of Boomers themselves, whose short-sighted drive toward economic acceleration has had long-reaching consequences for which they might also seek forgiveness.

In “When is Resistance Right?” Kristina Gaddy explores the very meaning of the term resistance. She considers how recent protests and demonstrations by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition are framed by both participants and the media. She also looks back at the experience of the Edelweiss Pirates and other bündische groups in World War II Germany to answer the questions, “is there ever a right way to resist?” “Who gets remembered, and why?”

Prompted by an OK Boomer meme, Yanyi responds with an ekphrastic poem, “From Ponte de Dom Luis.” An innovative form of the sestina, a French style of poem built around the number six, Yanyi’s poem deals with the generational memory of famine and the hope of a thriving future, a view over the Douro river valley that lightens into a chaotic tide of hope.

And in “On Memes and Movements and Moving Home,” Christine Elliott tries to reach across the digital divide to her own parents. Many Boomers find OK Boomer offensive, a reaction that is predicated not only on OK Boomer’s dismissive speech act but on its form as a digitally-native meme. The memetic flow and inside-jokeness of OK Boomer depends on literacy in a variety of technological structures of meaning (Photoshop, video editing, TikTok). Participation patterns in meme generation are affected by age, as well as by race, gender, ethnicity, and ability. OK Boomer builds a community that excludes as well as includes, which leads Elliott to ask: are we talking past each other?

In an election year, in the ten years before we reach a global threshold for exacerbated climate crisis, generational politics seems both more pressing and more limiting than ever before. Boomers have an outsized voice in gerontocratic American electoral politics. The current Senate body has the oldest median age in history ever; this president, like the previous three presidents, is a Boomer. More than half of the voting-age population of the United States is over 45. Demographic and economic disparities loom large—Millennials are more racially diverse than Boomers, and also far worse off financially, burdened by student debt and decreased government investment in education and housing. We are also experiencing new youth protest movements that parallel the Boomer-experienced fights for civil rights and against the Vietnam War: the Sunrise Movement, Skolstrejk för klimatet, March for Our Lives. History repeats, and threatens to come to an end; are we OK?