Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor and of counsel to the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
The New Zealand parliamentarian Chlöe Swarbrick was giving a floor speech about the climate crisis. An older colleague was heckling her. She is 25 years old. What could she say to counter his age and experience and gravitas?
She did not miss a beat: “OK Boomer”… and that was enough. His authority lay dead on the floor, killed by two words that millennials (and Gen X-ers and Gen Z-ers) have used to cut down out-of-touch-oldsters – scorn disguised as deference.
“OK Boomer” started on the platform Tik Tok and exploded into the meme of the moment. Turns out young people trying to launch into a gig economy with little job security on a rapidly warming planet, with far less opportunity for the wealth and creature comforts that their parents and grandparents enjoyed (A car? A house? Ha!) don’t want to be lectured by Baby Boomers, the generation who put them into this kind of shape.
Some Boomers object. What about civil rights legislation? Ending the Vietnam War? Advancing women’s rights? Stop complaining and grow up!
We asked a Boomer and a Millennial to talk it out.
Tell us, Millennial Jill Filipovic and Boomer Paul Callan: When you hear the phrase “OK Boomer,” what do you think of?
Jill, you go first…
Jill Filipovic: Paul, generational warfare is nothing new. Remember when today’s Boomers were warning each other not to trust anyone over 30?
You Boomers have called us “snowflakes,” mocked us for trigger warnings and safe spaces (which are just an attempt to be sensitive to others), and even derided avocado toast (which is delicious).
You were born into post-war prosperity, enjoyed the riches of government hand-outs and affordable education, then moved into your subsidized suburban homes and pulled the ladder up behind you. You’re retiring with a pension and Social Security benefits I will likely never see, and that are almost definitely out of the question for any kids I might have – if the world is even around when those kids grow up, thanks to your generation plundering our planet.
Boomers, you started it.
And yes, I know, #NotAllBoomers (maybe not you, Paul, and not my liberal parents, either). Boomers animated the feminist and civil rights movements, protested the Vietnam War. But as you aged, you – or at least the white people among you – collectively became more conservative, more selfish, and less empathetic, and it’s my generation that will pay the price. Instead of extending a hand, you mock us for living out the values you raised us to have: Compassion for others. Curiosity about the world. Kindness to ourselves.
When my parents were my age, they owned a home, had no educational debt, and were comfortably raising two children. I’m married with six-figure student loan debt and two cats. Kids? I don’t see how we could afford them – and even if we could, their futures seem so tenuous on a flooding, burning earth that I’m not sure having them would be ethical.
All that, and it’s you who wants sympathy and an apology – because your feelings were hurt by an irreverent meme? Boomers, you’re practically snowflakes.
Paul Callan: Jill, our CNN editor instructed us to submit: “100 words or less.” Your submission: 355 words. Following instructions is a Millennial problem. This precision calculation, incidentally, was generated by Boomer-invented word processing using a PC, also invented by a Boomer while you were getting a “participation trophy” for just showing up to play soccer, and while your doting Boomer parents watched.
Your professional success is undoubtedly the result of your Boomer parents raising you in a “subsidized suburban home,” thereby facilitating the “affordable education” you now criticize. The participation trophies were a Boomer error I readily admit. (Btw that’s 100 words)
Jill: Paul, it’s true – putting in more time and effort for less money in a capricious gig economy and then being derided for it is certainly an experience many Millennials (and Millennial women in particular) can relate to. I see you haven’t addressed any of my actual arguments, so I’ll try again: Boomers did a lot of good; they also ravaged the planet, hoarded resources for themselves, and elected right-wing demagogues who are destroying American democracy. This, understandably, makes the youngs angry. What makes Boomers angry? When we say “OK Boomer.”
Perhaps participation trophies aren’t the problem.
Paul: Jill, I’m waiting for real arguments. Complaining about how tough you have it in the “gig” economy of the richest, most successful and diverse democracy in the history of the planet doesn’t cut it. In much of the world no “gigs” are even within reach, so consider yourself lucky to have more than one.
I know that you are an attorney. I remember attending the first class at Boston College Law with 50/50 gender parity. The policy of seeking gender and racial diversity in higher education was enacted as a result of student Boomer demonstrations in the 60s and 70s and Boomer legislation in the years that followed.
You complain of a “ravaged” environment. Check a little environmental history. If you want to see “ravaged,” take a look at the smoky, grime ridden photos of the New York Skyline prior to the 1960s. Often buildings were barely visible through the smoke and smog. Boomers developed and implemented the technological innovations that enabled you and other “woke” Millennials to breathe clean air and complain about the environment.
Yes, we have a long way to go but maybe if your generation moves out of the basement of mom and dad’s house and gets to work on some new technological solutions we will solve our current global warming challenge. Yelling at Donald Trump may feel good, but we need solutions and it’s about time that your pampered generation stops posting rants on social media and gets to work. You might think about fighting to protect free speech on campus rather than restricting it to protect your snowflake ears. OK Millennial?
Jill: I don’t dispute that Boomers did quite a bit of good in the 1960s and 70s, and many continue to contribute to progressive causes. But look at numbers: Overwhelmingly, older Americans (and especially the white ones) vote for policies and politicians that undermine the American dream for people my age and younger.
Is “OK Boomer” rude and dismissive? Sure, and it’s not my insult of choice. But let’s look at the concerns on each side. Millennials are worried about pervasive economic insecurity, a warming planet, a broken health care system that means, incidentally, that we’re dying younger, a social safety net full of holes, out of control college and childcare costs, growing income inequality and the rise to power of right-wing strongmen from nationalist movements the world over (and in the US, a nationalist-leaning Republican party that is increasingly white, and comes with its own television propaganda arm).
From what I can see, you’re more interested in yelling at us about silly, trumped-up culture war fights stoked by Fox News: Campus “safe spaces,” alleged violations of free speech by a handful of college kids (check out conservative campuses if you really want to see free speech being shut down), how we’re whiny live-at-home snowflakes. Want to end this generational warfare? So do I. Tell your Boomer friends to turn off Fox, worry less about the kids and their safe spaces, and vote for progressive candidates who will make sure that all Americans have the opportunities that were afforded to the luckiest of your generation.
Paul: I do concede that the Boomer generation shares one exceptionally serious flaw, their child rearing techniques were abominable. We rebelled against our parents, accusing them of being too strict, “judgmental” and rule oriented. All they really were trying to do was to instill a religious-based sense of morality in their children.
Teaching and holding us to moral standards of right and wrong was imperative. Boomers rebelled from that 1950’s world with the sexual revolution, an educational revolution and a skepticism of authority. These ideas were embraced and enhanced by many of the Millennials as well as substantial numbers of generations Y, Z and the “Centennials” in a way Boomers never anticipated. The result is the veneration of “situational morality,” a lack of personal responsibility and the embrace of “victimhood.”
Your Boomer parents should be proud of their highly articulate daughter, as I am of my own children. But they make a mistake if they think Fox News and nationalist rhetoric is the problem. American democracy is a fragile flower which has blossomed with a reverence for free speech and the incorporation of all of the world’s ethnic groups and races into the melting pot of a collective American culture. The result has been the world’s most successful run at a workable democracy. Keeping it alive should be the joint work of both generations…OK?
Jill: Boomer grievances about Millennials amount to little more than “kids these days” and “get off my lawn.” There is nothing particularly original about this venerable, generational kind of friction – the younger folks rejecting tradition and obligation, the older ones tut-tutting about bad manners and how things were back in their day.
And like every generation before us, Millennials have shifted course from our parents, and have been branded lazy, entitled and disrespectful in the process (do you remember the 60s and 70s? Because that’s what hippies, feminists and civil rights activists were called, too, and the Beats before that). I’m sure in 30 years, I’ll be griping about the generation being born now.
But there are very real differences between Boomers and Millennials that are less about culture and more about resources: When you entered the job market, the federal government was investing in your future – your infrastructure, your education, research – to the tune of $3 for every $1 spent on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. Now those numbers are reversed, and spending on entitlements is growing to closer to $5 for every dollar spent on investments. (Please do read this whole article, written by a Boomer who I think is pretty OK).
I agree with you that free speech is crucial to protect. I also don’t think Millennials pose a particular threat to it – I think college students are still learning and figuring things out, and in my college days (and yours) we were free to do that without going viral; today, minor statements are blown up to stoke Boomer outrage at Kids These Days.
It’s not Millennials who are a threat to American democracy – it’s rank inequality. It’s not Millennials who threaten free speech – it’s autocratic leaders. I won’t defend every youthful excess. But looking at the politics and priorities of Millennials vs. Boomers? I’d say the kids are all right.
Paul: Jill, I come away from this discussion with the feeling that differences often perceived as “generational” are in reality more ideological in nature. The “younger generation,” including, once, the Boomer generation, have always felt that their parents had lost touch and were too conservative in their ways. The flippant “OK Boomer” insult eliminates the need to have a respectful and reasoned discussion about the solutions to the problems of contemporary America.
Both Boomers and Millennials might be surprised to learn that the majority of both generations share the same desire to solve America’s racial, economic, and environmental problems. And now that we Boomers are a little older we will even discuss these problems with the Millennials who might possibly be over 30 … not that this applies to you, Jill.
Jill: Paul, I’m not particularly interested in branding Boomers – a diverse generation – as conservative and selfish, but it definitely makes me want to roll my eyes and say “OK Boomer” when I see young people portrayed as entitled triggered snowflakes (in part because that dig is old and lame and just sounds crotchety).
While I am worried about the future, all I’m hearing is scolding about my generation not being as great as yours was in the past. Perhaps the lesson is that the dynamic between experienced, obstinate (and cranky) older people and malcontented, forward-looking (and irreverent) younger ones is the same as it ever was.
And that the “generational warfare” frame makes us talk past each other and puts us all on the defensive.