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Posing for a picture with smartphone app TikTok. | AFP/Getty Images
OK boomer pits the Youths against the Olds. Listen to Today, Explained to learn why the truth about this meme can be found in its shades of gray.
“OK boomer.” At this point, you’ve probably heard the phrase from the popular TikTok meme that pits the Youths against the Olds. But the truth about this generational standoff can be found in its shades of gray.
There are five commonly recognized generations in the US right now: The Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z. For a while now, Vox’s Aja Romano explains, the cross-generational dialogue between boomers and millennials has been brewing. And recently, Gen Z has entered the mix.
With all this repetitive back-and-forth — seriously, there are bingo cards — it’s no wonder the most polarizing meme of the year is a two-word dismissal of the whole debate. “OK boomer,” which floated into the internet mainstream and rapidly gained traction this fall, is an attempt by millennials and Gen Z to both encapsulate this circular argument and reject it entirely.
Aja joins host Sean Rameswaram on this episode of Today, Explained to walk through what this TikTok trend is all about. In the second half of the show, Vox’s Brian Resnick looks at what’s behind these generational divides through a scientific lens. Memory and bias are two big factors at play here. Another? A scientific debate about whether or not generations truly exist. “There’s not a lot of good data on it. Some of the generational differences we see are really just age differences,” he says.
We can anticipate that moment [when young people eventually become critical older people’ because of how human memory works, of how we forget what kids are like. And we can also see the history … the cycle repeats. The “OK boomer” young people today are going to be the “ugh, kids” of tomorrow.
Listen to the full episode to learn more about what’s truly behind these generational divides. To understand more about what’s behind the meme itself, here’s a lightly edited transcript of Aja Romano’s conversation with Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram.
How did this socioeconomic divide associated between the boomers and the millennials and Gen Z lead to this meme?
It’s been identified as popping up on places like 4chan as early as 2015, which is a long time ago. But it really took off recently as an insult on TikTok when actual baby boomers began to post rants about “kids these days.”
The TikTok Youths responded by just basically creating this meme and going by going wild with it and responding to every what they felt was every condescending baby boomer rant with this two-word rejection: “OK boomer.”
What exactly were millennials and younger responding to with “OK boomer”? What were they complaining about?
In a lot of the TikTok rants, they’re very familiar tropes. You’ve got the fact that teens were being lazy or they weren’t searching for jobs correctly. One of the examples that I found really funny and relatable was a 16-year-old girl who I actually talked to for my article, who had made a viral response to her grandfather because her grandfather was yelling at her to get a job, even though she was only 16, and she hadn’t even gotten a chance to get her driver’s license yet.
And this wasn’t a joke. This was like a serious interaction, right? A granddaughter and a grandfather.
Right. Exactly. Another thing that really jumped out at me again was about the expression of gender and sexual orientation. One of the memes I saw was a girl reacting to a relative in her family who was mad that she had been holding hands with her girlfriend in public. On one level, it’s sort of generally about “how dare teens be nonconforming in public,” you know. But on another level, it speaks to how a more sharply progressive divide politically between Gen Zers and boomers.
You reference these economic inequities between boomers and millennials and Gen Z, even. Are there real insecurities behind this meme?
There are a lot, and some of them are really obvious. If you think about [it] millennials came to adulthood during the recession, they witnessed the housing collapse, they witnessed the financial scandal starting in 2008. They witnessed Occupy Wall Street rise and then sort of peter out. All while climate change is looming and growing worse and worse. And I think all of these things have definitely, definitely taken a toll on the way that millennials approach their finances and in how they think about capitalism in general. We know for a fact that millennials are saving money, but they’re investing less.
They’re choosing to rent rather than pay mortgages and buy houses. And they’re also more of them. So they’re competing for fewer spaces in the workforce that pay less and boomers aren’t necessarily retiring as early as they used to. A lot of boomers are basically still in jobs that millennials could take if the boomers weren’t there before them. So there’s a lot of friction going on there.
But there is nuance to this, right? And it’s important to point that out. I mean, there are boomers who are retired who still can’t afford prescription drugs. There are boomers who don’t retire because they can’t afford it yet and they work later into life.
Absolutely. This is the complication that always arises when you try to generalize about a very broad group of people. You get people being, “Well, I’m not like that. That’s not my experience. So therefore, you can’t judge me.” And it’s not necessarily to say that every single member of the baby boomer generation acts in X, Y, Z ways, but as a collective, these are the traits that they have culturally indulged in or enabled and so forth.
The same thing can be said of Gen X and millennials, Gen Z. We’ll all have to critique ourselves at some point. We’ll have to look at ourselves as a collective generation at some point and say, okay, what have we gotten right as a group? Until now, what have we gotten wrong? You can say “OK boomer” is an attempt to hasten that conversation along, if you will.
Did it work in that sense? Did it help facilitate generational reflection of some kind? Is it doing that right now?
Maybe. There are probably a lot of people who are listening to the conversation on all sides. Although I’m sure that that’s being drowned out by the typical media tendency to misconstrue the meme and the typical social media tendency to send people just sort of yelling and shrieking at each other without really listening to what the other person is saying.
Old people have been complaining about young people for as far back as anyone can research. And we can also assume that young people have been complaining about old people. It’s just that there are fewer written records of like a 15-year-old being like, “Uh dad, like you don’t fucking get it.”
Why has there always been this divide? I mean, old people create young people. If they hate them so much, why don’t they just stop?
When I’ve been talking to some researchers about this question, they’re like, “Well, if every generation is just worse than the previous ones, then when was the ideal generation?” Back in like, you know, 4000 BC? Or there must be something interesting psychologically happening where these patterns of complaints just repeat themselves year after year, millennia after millennia. Let’s just assume this dynamic is immortal.
Why is this dynamic so immortal?
It seems to be a problem of memory. There’s this collective memory loss of what kids used to be like. And adults are always forgetting that kids have always been a little entitled and narcissistic and not very conscientious. And this is where we’re getting at, the fundamental memory problem.
We are really bad at remembering questions like, “What were kids like in the past?” Or to say it another way, we’re really bad at remembering how things used to be. And there’s a lot of biases that come across. But one interesting bias is called presentism.
Your memory is like this video editor who’s working on this split-second deadline and just has to grab like whatever tape is nearby to fill in the gaps. When you’re trying to remember something like what were kids used to be, some of those gaps get filled in with stuff from the present. So we generally use our present to fill in the gaps of things that we don’t quite remember from the past.
You don’t know this is happening. Like when we’re using pieces of the present to color in the past, like you don’t see that memory and go, “I’m filling in the gaps here. I’m making an assumption based on some present-day conditions today.” No, you just remember it as the past.
So, memory and bias have a lot to do with this generational divide we’ve been talking about on the show today. Are there other factors involved here?
Memory accounts for how this story is told. But a lot of the biases of the human brain come from this like one idea. We often replace hard questions with easier questions.
A hard question is like, “How did the world get so fucked up?” And you think about … corporate interests in America have been too powerful, and Republicanism has become more conservative and more unified against climate change, and lobbying … this is a really complicated answer.
A more simple question is like, “What is my stereotype of an older person, and how did they fuck this up?” We group people into generations, and we’d start to tell stories because it’s an easy way to interpret the world.
It sounds almost like you’re saying that there is no generational divide, but I imagine a lot of people would argue against that.
Well, people are, you know, divided. But this idea of generations, there is debate in science along the lines of like, “Are generations real?” But there’s not a lot of good data on it. Some of the generational differences we see are really just age differences.
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