‘OK boomer’ is lazy language


I think it’s fair to say millennials hate being caricatured as avocado-eating, safe space-loving brats who don’t know how good they’ve got it. Those who deal in such reductive pictures come across as ignorant, arrogant, and unwilling to engage in the discussion necessary for different generations to understand each other. In short, it’s a massive wind up.

It’s frustrating, then, to see millennials committing similar sins with ‘OK boomer.’ The catch-all ownage had become a favourite rebuttal to older generations who disagree with us, or say something we don’t like, or who we just don’t like very much. The phrase has entered the mainstream, tacky merchandise and all.

I understand where the phrase has come from. I do. Student debt is skyrocketing. Hefty portions of the world are quite literally on fire. Millions upon millions of people are suffering and a cursory look at the polls show that, by and large, older generations are quite happy to vote for more of the same. They’ve got theirs.

As exasperating as the generational divide is at times, shutting down debate with ‘OK boomer’ is not the way to bridge it. Not only does it gloss over all manner of complex issues that deserve to be front and centre; it actually makes it harder for them to be taken seriously.

Let’s say you’re worried about climate change. Or broken electoral systems. Or the cost of healthcare. Or nepotism. Or the housing crisis. Or zero hour contracts. Or student debt. Or any other issue bearing down on us, and which older generations are complicit in. Wonderful. Say that. Say the whole thing.

Outline your position clearly and know your facts. Show your position is worth listening to. What does ‘OK boomer’ achieve apart from an unbearably smug sense of self-satisfaction? You think the person you’re saying it to is more likely to change their opinion? I don’t think so. If anything you give them another excuse not to take you seriously.

If you had an honest disagreement with someone and their response was ‘OK millennial,’ you’d think they were an idiot, and you’d be right, yet apparently it’s the height of wit when the roles are reversed. Wherever you stand, behaving as if your position is self-evidently true is generally a bad idea.

Lumping whole demographics together as idiot hive minds is also generally a bad idea, not least when belonging to that demographic is completely out of someone’s control. It’s one thing to judge people based on their actions, it’s another to do so based on something like age. Not all women are the same. Not all black people are the same. Not all people over, say, 50 are the same.

Indeed — and stay with me on this — someone can be in a different demographic to you and share many of the same problems and world views. Yes, it’s true. And where you differ can often be an opportunity to learn something. No really! And if you fail to make that effort, I can’t see on what grounds you can dismiss someone completely out of hand.

Now you might say, among other things, ‘But Fred, although we are all individuals there are clear, measurable political leanings depending on your age. I didn’t vote for this mess.’ True enough, but that’s already a fair bit nuanced than ‘OK boomer,’ isn’t it? There’s only so much sophistication you can fit into three syllables. When New Zealand politician Chloë Swarbrick used the term in parliament she had to follow it up with an editorial, because without context the phrase borders on meaningless.

Even if you argue ‘OK boomer’ is a kind of shorthand for actual arguments, and the people using it just can’t be bothered to make them in the moment, you’re still assuming everyone using it has a clue what they’re talking about. I’m willing to bet they don’t. If we can’t be bothered to lay out our position properly when it’s ‘pointless,’ what guarantee is there that we’ll do a good job of it when it matters?

I know taking the time to explain an argument in depth is taxing, often fruitless work. I’m under no illusions that the approach always leads to warm, fuzzy resolution, but can’t help but feel you’ve got to try. Some people aren’t interested in honest debate, but cop-outs like ‘OK boomer’ only narrow the field further.

I suppose the question at the root of all this is, What do you want to achieve? Do you want to come across like a cowardly brat? If so, you’re right on track. Have at it. But if you want to keep your arguments sharp, change people’s minds, and with time help move the needle of public opinion, ‘OK boomer’ is probably best consigned to the scrap heap.

What do you want to achieve?

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