Things come and go so quickly these days. Or is it just that some of us are slower on the uptake? Whatever: No sooner do we—does one—become aware of a meme or a trend or a catchphrase than it is unofficially declared done, over, kaput; the shark is judged to have been well and truly jumped.
“‘OK Boomer’?” said my editor, looking slightly alarmed at my choice of topic. “Is that still a thing?”
“Still?” I said.
“Only to Boomers,” a precocious colleague chimed in, unhelpfully.
Mayfly-like though the life cycle of a contemporary meme is, there are discrete phases to it. The meme emerges from some dim, untraceable nativity; to this day, for instance, no one can account for the origins of “OK Boomer.” The meme whistles around social media, imparting a glow of knowing cleverness to the first dozen users to post it to TikTok or Instagram or Twitter; for a quarter hour or more, these trailblazers feel themselves united in an unapproachable freemasonry of cool. Hours tick by, sometimes days. Soon, everyone wants in on the act, and the meme is everywhere. Samantha Bee uses it as a punch line. Incipient signs of exhaustion appear: Mo Rocca plans to build a six-minute segment around it for CBS Sunday Morning next weekend.
The death rattle of a meme is heard when some legit news outlet—The New York Times, NPR—takes notice and spies in the meme a cultural signifier, perhaps even a Larger Metaphor. Deep thinkers hover like vultures. The world surrounds the meme, engulfs it, suffocates it, drains it, ingests it. By the end of the week, Elizabeth Warren is using it as the subject line of an email fundraiser, next to a winking emoji. The shark, jumped, recedes ever deeper into the distance. Rocca’s segment airs. The meme is finished.
The particulars of the downward spiral change from meme to meme, of course. The end came for “OK Boomer” mid-month, when it was reported that Fox was trying to trademark the phrase for the title of a TV show.
TV—as in cable and broadcast? Fox? With this news, “OK Boomer” was immediately rendered as exciting and cutting-edge as the Macarena. You might as well freeze it in amber. Google Trends charted the ascent and the quick decline.
Having peaked nearly two weeks ago, the meaning of OK Boomer may have already been forgotten by its millions of users. Dictionary.com, the meme reliquary, is here to remind us: OK Boomer was a “slang phrase” used “to call out or dismiss out of touch or close-minded opinions associated with the Baby Boomer generation and older people more generally.” The essential document was a split-screen video, seen in various versions on YouTube and TikTok. On one side, a Baby Boomer, bearded, bespectacled, and baseball-capped (natch), lectured the camera on the moral failings of Millennials and members of Generation Z; on the other side, as the Boomer droned on in a fog of self-satisfaction, a non-Boomer (different versions exist) could be seen making a little placard: OK Boomer.
In an irony-soaked era, a word is often meant to be taken for its opposite, and so it was with OK Boomer. OK means “not okay”—OK here means (borrowing a meme with a longer shelf life) “STFU.” Many Boomers were thus quick to take offense, since taking offense is now a preapproved response to any set of circumstances at any time. One Boomer even objected to the plain word Boomer, calling it the “N-word of ageism.” Once again, Boomers are getting ahead of themselves. No one has yet begun referring to the “B-word” as a delicate alternative to the unsayable obscenity Boomer. My guess is that it will take a while.
Other Boomers, if you’ll pardon the expression, insisted that the national disgrace of “OK Boomer” would require the intervention of the heavy hand of the law, lest the injustice go uncorrected. A writer for Inc. magazine, a self-described Gen Xer, earnestly advised employers of whatever age to keep an ear open around the workplace. Casual use of the phrase, she wrote, could be a “serious problem.”
“If you have an employee, of any age, dropping the ‘Ok, Boomer’ line against any employee who is over the age of 40, you have to take it seriously,” wrote Inc.’s employment expert. “You can’t dismiss it as harmless banter.” Indeed, no banter should be deemed harmless any longer without prolonged and skeptical consideration. In the case of “OK Boomer,” its bantering might fall afoul of federal law banning discrimination against employees 40 and over. “A joke … can lead to patterns that create a hostile work environment, putting the company on the receiving end of a lawsuit.”
Much of what scholars might call “OK Boomer” literature—it’s a kind of pop-up literature, here today and gone tomorrow—dwelled on the ill will Gen Z feels toward Baby Boomers, but the most interesting thing about the meme is the way it undammed vast, transgenerational reservoirs of grievance and self-pity, running in every direction. Gen Z dislikes the Boomers for all the predictable reasons: for their condescension, as exemplified by the hectoring guy in the baseball cap, but also for hastening climate change, amassing national debt, raising college tuition, driving up real-estate prices, and electing Donald Trump. So high are the sins piled that, as the Times reported, entrepreneurial Gen Zers were forced to strike back with the most forceful response the Boomer generation has left them with: They printed T-shirts, and even hoodies, inscribed with Okay boomer have a terrible day.
Harsh, yes, but not a unique sentiment in the round-robin of intergenerational unpleasantness. Millennials dislike Boomers for all the same reasons Gen Zers dislike them. Gen Xers, for their part, are growing increasingly unhappy because it’s dawning on them that they are about to be leapfrogged in the scheme of national succession. The Boomers stubbornly cling to power as the clock runs out: There’s as little chance a Gen Xer will become president of the United States as Prince Charles will succeed his mum without bumping her off. This seems to have increased the bad feeling the Xers have toward Millennials, who, as a generation, seem to have otherwise borne the brunt of many Boomer misfires (the Iraq War, the Great Recession). Meanwhile, the Millennials are quite happy to dismiss their youngsters as pampered and unworldly groundlings– snowflakes, to use the meme first popularized in the novel Fight Club, written, of course, by a Baby Boomer.
What “OK Boomer” made plain is that the only thing all these age cohorts agree on is that as bad as everybody else is, the Boomers are worse. There’s justice here. Boomers invented the generational antagonism that the “OK Boomer” meme thrived on and enlarged. For self-hating Boomers like me, this made the “OK Boomer” episode unusually clarifying and rewarding, and we should remain forever grateful to whatever whining, resentful non-Boomer thought it up. I’m sorry to see it go—especially because our elders never had a chance to use it.
These were the generations whose spawn we were, called the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation. Their silence was one of the things that made them great. Still, a snappy comeback would have been handy 40 years ago, as we sanctimoniously hectored them with the many great truths we thought we had discovered, and with which we began our long cultural domination: “The Viet Cong are agrarian reformers!” “Condoms aren’t worth the trouble!” “Yoko Ono is an artist!”
How much vexation might have been avoided if they had just raised a hand and said, with a well-earned eye-roll: “OK Boomer.”
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