Now that I have your attention — no, I’m not addressing nearly 2,000 misconceptions about the meme and saying of the cultural moment. The list is under ten. And the moment may have already passed, while I was busy professoring and school boarding in earnest this fall. I thought it was still worth saying.
But first, a bit about me.
Who Am I?
I was born two months and two days after the more-or-less official end of the Baby Boom. I am the youngest child (by over seven years) of my parents, who were themselves the youngest children in their respective families. I am married to someone who is a little over seven years older than I am, and who is the oldest of five children, all close together, in her family.
All of my living relatives, blood and by marriage, except for my mother-in-law, an aunt, and a first cousin once removed, are from the Baby Boom era.
In addition, nearly all of my mentors, from birth to now, have been members of the Baby Boom era.
I did not grow up with hatred in my soul for anyone older than I am. I am a classic little brother, wanting to do what my big brother did, wanting to be a part of the groups and institutions that he and others were a part of. I still love my mentors, and I still do whatever I can within those groups and institutions that they were a part of and I now serve.
I have taught over 6,000 students in my career as a university professor, 99.9% of whom are currently ages 18–40. My wife and I also have a 23-year-old son.
And so this is an essay of mediation, from a “Generation X” member with a front-row seat to the Baby Boom era, who has also spent the past 21 years teaching thousands of students from what are called the “Millennial” and “Gen Z” eras.
During the past few years, I have been on the receiving end of instructive critiques about the errors of my thinking regarding the Baby Boom era. These critiques have come from: a good friend from graduate school a little older than I am; a stranger in his mid-60s who recently engaged in a lengthy Facebook subthread about a New York Times article on “OK Boomer” before deleting all of his messages (but a friend saved the subthread); a church friend in her late sixties who has made repeated claims and defenses for her era on my Facebook page; a 61-year-old lawyer and former assistant to the mayor of my hometown, who insists on the bigotry of “OK Boomer”; a retired university colleague and national leader in gifted education who now criticizes me on other people’s Facebook pages if I even do as little as “like” a story about “OK Boomer”; and a member of an alumni association I lead, who is 59 years old, who recently wrote an essay to the younger generations on Medium. My essay here is something of a companion piece to hers, since I am writing this because of something approximating a dare from one of her Facebook friends, and then a request from the author herself to “[state] your counterargument.” And so here we are. I will respond to her essay in more detail near the end of my essay.
In addition, there is the story from last month of an elected official in New Zealand whose use of “OK Boomer” has become international news. I also include as source material some conversations I have had with my own college students recently on this subject.
Finally, there is the Internet, which is a source of diverse information, some of it quite factual, for those willing and able to use it. The image at the top of this essay is a prime example; the meme is accurate, down to the month of Jack Weinberg’s statement that became one of the sayings of the Sixties. It was echoed and complemented by the famous lyric from The Who’s “My Generation,” released in 1965: “I hope I die before I get old.” These details and more are easily gleaned from the same Internet that tells us about chemtrails and the flat Earth.
A Few (not 1,946) Misconceptions
- ‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations
This was the headline of a New York Times article on the subject near the end of October. The piece didn’t really justify the headline, and was as mostly about merchandising. But the headline sticks out. Someone thought it was accurate enough to put in the Times.
And whoever wrote that seems to have forgotten the mother of all intergenerational breakdowns known as the Sixties. That decade was not just all flowers and Woodstocks; it also included arguments between the Baby Boomers and their parents, by the thousands and ten thousands, over the Vietnam War, relationships, the civil rights movement, drugs, and other subjects. The phrase “the generation gap” became popularized during the early-to-mid Sixties. And yet, now that their parents have mostly departed from the scene, we are to believe that the Millennial generation’s response to their parents “marks the end of friendly generational relations”? Parents by the millions are spinning in their graves at such claims.
Don’t these words capture the moment for Millennials and younger generations?: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” And yet this is the opening sentence of the Port Huron Statement of 1962, one of the founding texts of the Sixties radical movement, written and published by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). And so ‘Millennials are killing generational relations?’ Nope. Moving on.
2. All generations are the same, and there is nothing new under the sun
This Ecclesiastical claim is a variant of every “cycle” argument used to rebut claims of change in any discussion. The cycle argument is often true, but not always, and requires inspection. (Example: climate change.)
I just cited the opening words of the 1962 Port Huron Statement and said that they capture the moment for Millennials as well. Broadly, that’s true. But the details are quite different.
What did the authors of that 1962 statement feel uncomfortable about the world they were inheriting? There are some profound differences between their discomfort and the discomfort I hear from my college students today.
For example, with regard to the economy, The Port Huron authors bemoaned (see p. 14 of the Statement) the sterile existence of the “Welfare State” while stating “Many of us comfortably expect pensions, medical care, unemployment compensation, and other social services in our lifetimes.” That was 1962; ask a Millennial today about their pension, their medical care, and other social services and be braced for bitter laughter. The economic changes since 1962 have been vast. From the vantage point of 2019, the breathless claim of the Statement (p. 15) that “The modern concentration of wealth is fantastic” can only be met with “hold my beer”:
What the SDS thought was “fantastic” in a bad sense in 1962, was actually about as good as the U.S. was ever going to get in terms of an equitable wealth distribution.
More broadly, the Baby Boom era occurred at the confluence of unique events: 1) the end of a world war that left the United States highly industrialized and virtually unscathed compared to the rest of the industrial world; 2) greatly expanded government funding for higher education via the “G.I. Bill” that provided upward mobility through education to millions; 3) the “Great Compression” due to high, progressive tax policies that minimized high-end wealth concentration, regardless of what the SDS thought at the time; 4) a period of public trust in the nation’s institutions (until early 1965, according to Bill Bishop in The Big Sort); and 5) the culmination of multiple social movements to expand rights for more Americans. No previous generation of Americans experienced these five events in confluence. In fact, Millennials have grown up in a nearly opposite era of American history, in which “forever war” has consumed trillions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq; college costs have reduced access to higher education; effective tax rates for billionaires are now lower than for the working class; trust in American institutions is at or near historic lows; and pushback against expanded rights has been fierce.
All of which is to say, no, all generations are not necessarily alike, based on the circumstances of their birth and development.
3. The beginning and ending dates of the “Boomer era” are arbitrary
Close kin to the “all generations are alike” claim is the statement that you can’t identify generations because the begin/end dates are picked out of the ether.
But, again, not all generations are alike here. The Boomer era is so-named because, well, there were lots and lots of babies born right after World War II. Is this point seriously in dispute?
The beginning year of 1946 cannot be in any real doubt.
The ending year of 1964 marks the last year that the birth rate exceeded the Depression-era 1930s, but defining the end of the Boomer era is not quite as easy. The “classic Boomer” era ends around 1959 when the exceptional birth rates versus previous decades end; “late Boomers” coinciding with declining-but-still-high birth rates are early-Sixties babies. By the late Sixties, birth rates are lower than during the Depression! So the end of the Boom is clearly somewhere between 1959 and 1969. Halfway in-between: 1964.
I think there is a separate and strong justification for 1964 as the ending year: as noted above, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort reveals via public survey information that in the early spring of 1965 public trust in our nation’s institutions began a free fall from which there has been no recovery. The reasons are not immediately clear, although on March 8, 1965 the first U.S. combat troops landed at China Beach, a key moment in the escalation of the Vietnam War. In any event, anyone born in 1965 or later has never lived in an America that trusted its institutions.
[7/24/2020 edit] Or, if these arguments aren’t good enough, take your fight to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2012 the Census Bureau officially defined the Baby Boom era as 1946–1964. It’s the only generation so defined by the U.S. government. See more here. Statistically, mid-1946 to mid-1964 might be best (see the link), but because of how population data are gathered it’s easiest to include all of 1946 and 1964.
Bottom line: the Boomer era started some time in 1946, and ended some time in 1964. Other generations may be much more ambiguously defined, but the Boomer generation isn’t. Back to #1: all generations aren’t the same.
4. You cannot generalize about a generation
The “cannot” in this statement falls somewhere between the meaning of “cannot in a meaningful sense” and “should not in a moral/ethical sense,” and sometimes both simultaneously.
The reasons why you can’t/shouldn’t generalize are well known at an individual level: your birth year doesn’t determine your personality; other factors (e.g., race, class, gender) can be far more important; etc.
But the experiences that I have had on social media, and that younger generations have had, suggest that there might be something special and different about the Baby Boom generation. Why would this generation bear similarities that would cut across personalities, race, class, and gender more than for other generations?
“The Great Compression” is one reason. Back in the Boomer days, the middle class was large, and the gulf between the average worker and the people at the top was relatively small. There were few/no “gated communities.” Disparities were tamped down enough that people could delude themselves into thinking that the U.S. was a “class-less nation,” although that wasn’t exactly the case. You don’t hear that claim much anymore.
But the lines of race and gender were stronger then than they are now. What experiences unified across those lines?
Answer: the media, especially TV and radio. The advent of commercial TV funneled tens of millions of Boomer kids into similar electronic experiences on a very few channels (as contrasted to today’s situation of even more widespread electronic experiences, but few widely shared experiences). TV and rock and roll were new; the ability to access them was limited enough to make it special but wide enough to encompass millions eventually. Boomers self-identify to a remarkable extent based on what they saw on TV or heard on radio or records; the identification is not as intense with succeeding generations. Just ask your nearest Baby Boomer to talk about Elvis, or the Beatles, or JFK, or Woodstock. What they saw and heard, became part of their collective souls.
I’m old enough to have experienced the very tail end of this. But, try as I might, I cannot explain to my 23-year-old son why people would sit on floors and beds, look at album covers and (after Sgt. Pepper) debate the lyrics, listen to the same music for hours, and develop intense bonds with musicians they never had a single human interaction with. You don’t even have to explain it to many Boomers; how could it otherwise be?
The confluence of this era with social movements and the rise of mass media cut across racial lines, as well. The civil rights movement of the King era was focused to a surprising extent on winning hearts and minds through TV news reporting. And every person of color on the otherwise lily-white TV shows was a personal triumph, from Little Richard to Bill Cosby to Diahann Carroll.
In short, during the Boomer era, a large percentage of young Americans were having similar shared electronic experiences, which continue to define them decades later. There is, I claim, a stronger identification in this way for the Boomers than for succeeding generations, whose media choices were larger and whose shared experiences became less and less over time.
And so these are two reasons why I think Boomers are more identifiable as a generation than other generations: 1) shared economic situations; 2) shared electronic experiences. Add to this the sheer size of the generation, which provided the Boomers with more cultural and economic clout than previous generations of youth, and it’s been an identifiable cohort ever since.
5. “OK Boomer” is ageist hate crime bigotry
The discussion above can motivate why a saying about the foibles of the Baby Boom generation might not be, as one of my online friends has said, “ageist hate crime bigotry.” Or, at worst, not uniquely ageist hate crime bigotry.
Is it ageist? The Baby Boom generation has been identifiable for decades, and (as noted previously) there were intergenerational issues with this generation from an older generation. So perhaps this isn’t about age.
Is it a hate crime? Oxford defines “hate crime” as: “ A crime, typically one involving violence, that is motivated by prejudice on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or other grounds.” We can pretty easily rule out race, religion, and sexual orientation. Age discrimination is the most likely “other ground” — but, see the discussion immediately above.
Is it bigotry? Oxford defines “bigotry” as: “ intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.” This is probably the strongest claim, since Millennials and younger generations do not see eye-to-eye with Boomers, as a group, on issues ranging from climate change to Donald Trump.
However, could this be a two-way street? What does “OK Boomer” mean, anyway? Here’s one distillation that went viral in November:
So, perhaps “OK Boomer,” even if classified as bigotry, is itself a response to bigotry — to intolerance exhibited by some of the Baby Boom generation toward others, in particular to those of younger generations. And, if it is bigotry, it could be no more ageist hate crime bigotry than “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
6. “OK Boomer” is being said by lazy spoiled American kids
The viral distillation of “OK Boomer” above references the claim that the phrase is used by “lazy” Millennials who have it “easy.” I personally find such claims difficult to accept because:
1) Generational wealth is concentrating at the top, any way you slice the data:
2) As noted, the Boomers enjoyed shared experiences to a much greater extent than do Millennials. So I have a hard time being able to generalize them, and that includes those who have been in my own college classes. Backgrounds and experiences differ radically, even at a less-than-fully-diverse state university.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that this phrase was used in response to a heckler by Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of Parliament in New Zealand — she is neither American, nor notably lazy.
Of course there are lazy and spoiled people of every generation. But the financial, professional, and environmental prospects for Millennials and other young people tend not to promote widespread laziness.
7. You can’t judge the Baby Boom generation because we created multiple movements for good in the 1960s
This is a theme that I’ve found quite often in social media discussions of generations. It is curious because the claim is of a personal variety, as if the speaker herself/himself personally did the work. The “we” of the Boomer era is different from the “we” of succeeding generations — it has the same powerful identification that I have discussed earlier in relation to TV personalities and music stars. If anyone of our generation did it, we — that is, I — lay claim to it.
But were the movements cited actually created and powered by Boomers? The most commonly cited examples I’ve seen are:
A. Civil rights movement
B. Feminist movement
C. Environmental movement
D. Anti-Vietnam War movement
E. Sixties peace, love, rock and roll culture (e.g., “you listen to our music)
It often goes unchallenged that these movements are the products of the Boomer generation. But that’s not who created them. Here’s an incomplete, but not cursory, list of those associated with these movements (with Baby Boom members boldfaced):
A. Civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (b. 1929); Thurgood Marshall (b. 1908); Constance Baker Motley (b. 1921); Ralph David Abernathy (b. 1926); Rosa Parks (b. 1913); Ella Baker (b. 1903); Bayard Rustin (b. 1912); Roy Wilkins (b. 1901); James Farmer (b. 1920); Bob Moses (b. 1935); John Lewis (b. 1940); James Bevel (b. 1936); Diane Nash (b. 1938); Medgar Evers (b. 1925); Fannie Lou Hamer (b. 1917); Malcolm X (b. 1925); Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (b. 1941); Huey Newton (b. 1942); Dick Gregory (b. 1930).
B. Feminist movement: Simone de Beauvoir (b. 1908); Betty Friedan (b. 1921); Gloria Steinem (b. 1934); Bella Abzug (b. 1920); Helen Gurley Brown (b. 1922); Shirley Chisholm (b. 1924); Eleanor Smeal (b. 1939); Angela Davis (b. 1944); Helen Reddy (b. 1941); Audre Lorde (b. 1934).
C. Environmental movement: Rachel Carson (b. 1907); Edward Abbey (b. 1927); David Brower (b. 1912); Barry Commoner (b. 1917); Sen. and Gov. Gaylord Nelson (b. 1916); Donella Meadows (b. 1941).
D. Anti-Vietnam War movement: Tom Hayden (b. 1939); Abbie Hoffman (b. 1936); David Dellinger (b. 1915); Bobby Seale (b. 1936); Staughton Lynd (b. 1929); Jane Fonda (b. 1937); Bill Ayers (b. 1944); Todd Gitlin (b. 1943); Muhammad Ali (b. 1942); the Berrigan brothers (b. 1921 and 1923); Ron Kovic (b. 1946); Daniel Ellsberg (b. 1931).
E. Sixties peace, love, rock and roll culture (e.g., “you listen to our music): Paul McCartney (b. 1942); John Lennon (b. 1940); George Harrison (b. 1943); Ringo Starr (b. 1940); Bob Dylan (b. 1941); Joan Baez (b. 1941); Robbie Robertson (b. 1943); Levon Helm (b. 1940); Jerry Garcia (b. 1942); Grace Slick (b. 1939); Jimi Hendrix (b. 1942); Carlos Santana (b. 1947); Arlo Guthrie (b. 1947); Janis Joplin (b. 1943); Marvin Gaye (b. 1939); Jim Morrison (b. 1943); John Fogerty (b. 1945); David Crosby (b. 1941); Neil Young (b. 1945); Timothy Leary (b. 1920); Donovan (b. 1946); Mick Jagger (b. 1943); Keith Richards (b. 1943); Otis Redding (b. 1941); Roger Daltrey (b. 1944); Mario Savio (b. 1942); Jann Wenner (b. 1946); Ralph Gleason (b. 1917).
That’s 76 names, and we can add Jerry Rubin (b. 1938), Pete Townshend (b. 1945) and Jack Weinberg (b. 1940) from earlier in the article. That’s 79 leaders of movements near and dear to the Boomers, but how many of the leaders were Boomers? Only 5. That’s 6.3%.
You can make your own list of leaders for these movements, but it’s unlikely to have a large population of Baby Boomers on it.
And the reason is this: while the Boomers online claim that they led these movements, they were either rank-and-file participants — or, more likely, they watched it on TV. Which is fine; most Baby Boomers were in their teens, or younger, when the big events of the Sixties and early Seventies took place.
But this is a far cry from being able to imply, “We are inoculated for life from criticism because of something we did 50 years ago.” That’s not even accurate, even if you accept the argument of lifetime inoculation. In reality, it was the generation or two before them who swung open the gates that the Boomers opened wider and walked through — all those people listed above who were born in the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. It is a rarity, in my online experience, to see Baby Boomers acknowledge their debt to previous generations.
8. “OK Boomer” is a substitute for real action to make positive change
This brings us to the final claim I’ve seen, in a recent Medium essay, that the “OK Boomer” saying is a waste of time; that power is not given, it is taken. But that is not always the case. Gaylord Nelson stepped back and let the youth organizers take primary credit for Earth Day; this is why not that many people outside of Wisconsin recognize his name. Ralph Gleason championed the Sixties music of San Francisco, and his name still appears on the masthead of Rolling Stone magazine, but you probably don’t know who he was. More generally, there’s the little matter of the 93.7% of the leaders I mentioned above; if it’s always a struggle for power, that doesn’t explain how the Boomer era did it “themselves” while nearly all of the leadership of “their” movements came from previous generations!
Perhaps this fight is how the Boomers remember it, from their “generation gap” days. Their elder generations might remember it a bit differently, but they aren’t around to correct the record.
Everything doesn’t always have to be a fight… which is what I wish I could remind some Boomers online.
But, in any case, the Sixties was not without its own slogans, from we shall overcome” to “hell no, we won’t go” to more unprintable ones, which somehow did not divert from the actions taken. It is facile to claim that a viral expression of frustration is wrong because it is not action. The younger generations have their own modes of communication and of action — and they can go together just as the slogans and actions of the Sixties did.
Those who judge the younger generations may find themselves living in glass houses, self-deluded into the same close-mindedness that they once accused their elders of.
Or, as the anthem goes:
“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”