Life And Society / Inequality

The anger behind the OK Boomer viral meme

05:00 am on 15 November 2019

Millennials were born into the digital era Photo: pixabay

‘OK Boomer’ started life as a eight-letter internet meme; a quip used by younger people who say they’re sick and tired of being dismissed for their age when trying to speak up to older generations.


The phrase got its big break a couple of weeks ago when it was uttered by Green MP Chloë Swarbrick as a retort to a fellow politician in a debate over climate change.

Almost as quickly as Swarbrick said the words, the pushback started.

The phrase was called ageist, dismissive and offensive by some, including mainstream commentators.

At the same time many defended its use, claiming Boomer to be a ‘state-of-mind’ rather than an actual age.

Like it or hate it, the discussion that followed ‘OK Boomer’s’ parliamentary debut has now seen it enter the common lexicon.

University of Auckland associate professor of media and communications, Neal Curtis, has some thoughts on the issue which might surprise you, given he sits on the cusp of being a boomer (born from 1945-65) and a Gen X’er (from around 1966-86).

A few years ago, Curtis penned a piece for the Herald, claiming boomers had squandered the privilege afforded to them for being born “at a time of optimism, peace, jobs for life, [and] growing prosperity”.

He says millennials on the other hand were born knowing “nothing but Thatcherism”.

“They were born in that bubble where they were told everything had been sorted out and they just need to help roll out the system.”

He remembers when his thoughts started to change, during the anti-millennial chatter a few years back.

“The university was going through a change in which the students were becoming customers rather than students, and we were being told we had to do more and more to provide for them.

“Those kinds of changes were taken as evidence millennials were lazy and want everything done for them, and then I went through this transition because I suddenly had this shift.

“We’re charging them massive fees, they’re all having to work, and they’re all quite stressed out.”

He says he understands why young people feel hard done by.

“Boomers like to think of themselves as hard working and many of them of course were… but they were also incredibly privileged. They grew up at a time when society was strong post-war and there was massive public investment.”

He says labelling ‘Boomer’ an ageist slur is a bit rich.

“Older people have been constantly attacking young people, right? The word Millennial became derogatory almost immediately.

“And then zoomers (the generation after millennials) or millennials go, ‘OK Boomer’, and they suddenly go: “Oh it’s hate speech!”

“The word 'Boomer' sort of contains its own critique – you were born at a time when society was booming… the advantage of the privilege is contained in the name itself.”

Curtis says there are always exceptions, and the arbitrary age groupings are becoming less relevant because society is changing much faster than ever before.

And he says with any label, it’s never one-size-fits-all.

“So the 'OK Boomer' thing, I kind of appreciate it and totally support the millennial and zoomer critique of earlier generations… [but] there are plenty of old people in New Zealand who are completely impoverished by the current type of politics.

Photo: RNZ

“The people who are struggling within our current system… actually spans all age groups.”