Why the ‘Ok Boomer’ phenomenon is short-sighted

Millennials and Generation Zers have more in common with struggling boomers than wealthy elites our own age

Starting as an internet meme, the ‘OK boomer’ trend has exploded, from TikTok videos to merchandise including hoodies, iPhone cases and shower curtains. Image taken from Amazon.com.

The “Ok Boomer” meme, which many young people are using online as a rebuttal against out-of-touch baby boomers, taps into frustrations disproportionately experienced by millennials and Generation Zers—particularly in Canada’s most unaffordable cities. Unfortunately, however, the meme also represents a discourse that ignores the many older people experiencing poverty, discrimination and hardship.

The meme began as a rallying cry for young internet users responding to a TikTok video, in which a white-haired man claims “the millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome, they don’t ever want to grow up.” According to New York Times columnist Taylor Lorenz, teenagers quickly started using the phrase as a reply to “basically any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people.”

Now, savvy merchants have cashed in, transforming “Ok Boomer” into a fast-selling product line, allowing youth to express their frustrations at the older folk with t-shirts, hoodies and baseball caps.

“The older generations grew up with a certain mind-set, and we have a different perspective,” designer Shannon O’Connor told the New York Times. “A lot of them don’t believe in climate change or don’t believe people can get jobs with dyed hair, and a lot of them are stubborn in that view.”

In other words, the great social battles of our time are being fought primarily along generational lines—or so this narrative would have it.

However, while it is true that millennials are much less likely to achieve the same material comforts as members of their parents’ generation (like buying property in Vancouver or Toronto), many low-income Canadians from older generations face similar struggles to their younger counterparts.

For example, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, the primary household maintainer was aged between 45 and 64 in 195,035 rental households and aged over 65 in 94,801 such households in British Columbia in 2016. 22 percent of renters aged 45 to 64 and 21 percent of those aged 65 and over spent 50 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities.

While a slightly higher percentage of 15 to 29 year-old renters spent half their income on rent (28 percent), a large number of adults effectively living in rent poverty fall roughly into the baby boomer age range.

Significant numbers of people belonging to the older generations experience poverty and hardship in other ways as well.

In 2017, 238,000 Canadians aged 65 and over lived below the poverty line. A CIBC poll last year found 32 percent of all Canadians aged between 45 and 64 have no retirement savings.

A 2014 survey found that 15.6 percent of people who said they experienced “hidden homelessness”—defined by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness as “the situation of an individual or family without stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means and ability of acquiring it”—were aged 55 and over.

A 2017 survey by Statistics Canada, meanwhile, found that the prevalence of disability leaps from 15.3 to 24.3 percent when people reach 45 to 64 years old. Disability puts people at a higher risk of falling into poverty, and the survey noted that 10.4 percent of over-65s with severe disabilities were living below the poverty line.

Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara noted similar hardships faced by older generations in the US, with many approaching retirement with little or no savings.

“They were victims of corporate raiders, neoliberal deregulation and predatory loans – and the situation is even more dire for those of them who are black and brown,” he wrote.

These are just a few examples of the groups of vulnerable people who are too easily forgotten when we replace a class-based analysis of social inequality with a shallow ‘millennial-versus-boomer’ discourse.

Notwithstanding perceived differences in attitudes that might exist between age groups, it iss better to stand in solidarity with boomers living in poverty, struggling with disability and/or racial, sexual, or other forms of discrimination, rather than identifying with people simply because they happen to have been born at around the same time as us.

True, the “Ok Boomer” meme is probably, in most cases, targeted at that red-faced equity-rich uncle who bought his multi-million dollar detached Vancouver home for $600,000 in 2005, and now rails against his children for buying too much avocado toast instead of saving up for a 20 percent down payment on a million-dollar house.

Yet wealthy elites of all ages—from Chip Wilson and Jeff Bezos, to Mark Zuckerberg and former Uber executive Ryan Graves—share a common interest in lower taxes, fewer regulations and less public investment in the social safety net.

No doubt those billionaires would prefer to see young people venting their frustrations at irritating uncles instead of calling for progressive measure such as income redistribution and a wealth tax.

So, a simple question to ask yourself might be: do you have more in common with a Lamborghini-driving twenty-something wearing an “Ok Boomer” sweatshirt, or a fifty-something handing over half their income to a landlord?

For most of us, the answer is the latter.

Alex Cosh is a PhD student and journalist based in Powell River, BC.

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