'Ok, boomer' is much more than a meme

'Ok, boomer' is much more than a meme
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One of the great gifts of social media is the safe space it has created for millennials and GenZs to creatively express their views on issues that matter, such as climate change, money, education, health care, cute animals, beauty and, of course, generational warfare.

The young mocking the old is nothing new. And why shouldn’t they? Older folks have been criticizing younger generations for some 2,500 years. From Aristotle to Horace to more recent critiques, the arguments have been consistent. As Aristotle put it in “Rhetoric”: “[Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstance…They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”

Though comparisons to Aristotle generally are futile, the sentiment he expressed about young people regularly features in today’s discourse. Entitled, impatient, industry-killing, technology-addicted children trapped in adult bodies sums up the dominant narrative on what characterizes younger Americans. As an AARP executive told Axios this week, "OK, millennials, but we're the people that actually have the money."

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Beyond the many fallacies in these stereotypes, older generations are playing with fire by not only discounting the contributions — current and future — of the under-40 crowd but also by dismissing their ideas and priorities. It therefore comes as no surprise that millennials and GenZs would find an easily repeatable retort to boomer condescension such as “Ok, boomer.” 

The “Ok, boomer” meme was born on TikTok, but mainstreamed for the rest of us on the floor of Parliament in New Zealand last week when a 25-year-old lawmaker said “Ok, boomer” to silence a heckler during a discussion on carbon emissions. That young lawmaker, Chloe Swarbrick, wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian: “My ‘Ok, boomer’ comment in Parliament was off-the-cuff, albeit symbolic of the collective exhaustion of multiple generations set to inherit ever-amplifying problems in an ever-diminishing window of time. It was a response — as is par-for the course — to a barrage of heckling in a Parliamentary Chamber that at present turns far too many regular folks off from engaging in politics.”

Swarbrick’s frustration is global. Here in the United States, the implications of “Ok, boomer” anger are deeply felt in two key areas — politics and the workforce — both with major implications for American society.

Politics is all about turning out the vote and targeting groups that are reliable. This consistently has been older voters who tend to take voting more seriously and, crucially, have more time to dedicate. Targeting them is a smart strategy, but millennials just became the biggest generation in American history. Not to get dark, but they’re going to be around a lot longer than boomers and need to be engaged.

The 2018 midterms proved that targeting young voters pays off. According to census data, turnout in the 2018 midterms reached a modern high and millennial turnout nearly doubled from 2014. Together with GenZ, Americans under 40 cast nearly 31 million votes, and GenZ will make up 10 percent of eligible voters come 2020. Meanwhile, boomers had their lowest share of midterm votes since 1986.

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Harnessing the power of this bloc should be paramount in working toward real, substantive change in American policy. Though a boomer himself, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to Clinton: 'This is not the kind of rhetoric that we need' Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Human Rights Campaign president rips Sanders's embrace of Rogan endorsement MORE (I-Vt.) has become the favored candidate of millennials and GenZs in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries. How? Advocating for revolutionary policies and the ability to meet the young on social media has buoyed his candidacies. 

Sanders’s Twitter feed is full of anecdotes of youth activism such as this video of a 10-year-old girl he titled “I think I just found my running mate” and support for national unity against the billionaire class. A Harvard Public Opinion Project poll found that 82 percent of millennials believe it is more important for a candidate to share his political views than to be an electable politician, a clear feather in Sanders’s cap compared to the overall Democratic frontrunner, former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE

Republicans have no prayer of capturing this group, but Democrats need to be mindful of their strategy. Younger voters will turn out, but the question is at what level. There are many ways to get involved and a variety of vehicles to create meaningful change in society. We’d best not turn younger voters off from the political process by playing it safe, as Swarbrick warned.

Another critical element of this generational war is taking place in the workplace. A USA Today/LinkedIn survey found that as boomers put off retirement, millennials and GenZs are finding it harder to move into middle- and high-level jobs. Over 40 percent of 18- to 38-year-olds reported that they’ve faced this issue.

Limited opportunities for advancement has the kind of ramifications one would expect: job dissatisfaction and job changing. Jobvite, a recruiting site, found that 61 percent of employees rank career growth as the top factor when looking for a new job. Job seekers across industries  face the prospect of a career path without adequate growth opportunity. Take teaching, for example: Many teachers in their 50s have no plans to retire. What is a millennial to do?

This isn’t to say that younger Americans don’t have high expectations for quick promotions. But as Brad Harrington, head of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, put it: “Those two things are colliding — a short time horizon for millennials and long lives for baby boomers.”

Being unresponsive to this very real challenge the largest generation in America faces is not an option, just as continuing politics-as-usual isn’t. “Ok, boomer” isn’t just a proverbial eye roll; it’s a serious warning that many young people believe American society isn’t working for them. 

Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.