Why must every generation think their folks are square?
And no matter where their heads are, they know Mom’s ain’t there…
—Younger Generation (John B. Sebastian), 1967
We’ve been complaining about our parents being old and out of touch since the dawn of time. Almost as long, in fact, as they’ve been complaining about us for being lazy and disrespectful.
Some of this intergenerational friction is unavoidable. It’s baked into the process of separation and individuation from our parents. When you’re young and relatively inexperienced, undefined and insecure, you naturally gravitate toward intellectual and emotional support from your peers. Shared cultural experiences, impenetrable slang, and resistance to authority are all intrinsic parts of that.
The concept of “teenagers” as a sociological phenomenon (and exploitable youth market) emerged sometime in the mid-20th century. By the 1960s, a good chunk of that cohort had left behind the soda shops, saddle shoes, and sock hops of earlier decades and become more politically, socially, and sexually aware. Rock ’n’ Roll gave way to rock, drinking to drugs, necking to—you get the idea. Youth culture was suddenly more than the youthful hi-jinks of grandpa’s day like goldfish-swallowing or phone-booth stuffing. Those kids had major issues: nuclear annihilation, civil rights, campus free speech, environmental pollution, police brutality, urban unrest, opposition to the Vietnam War, sexual equality.
Their increasingly serious dissent drew increasingly powerful pushback from the so-called Establishment, and at some point this ancient conflict was newly popularized as a “generation gap.” Berkeley free-speech activist Jack Weinberg neatly captured the sentiment when he offhandedly commented to a reporter, “Never trust anyone over 30.” At that point, even the oldest Boomer would safely have been only 18 or 19 years old—on the leading edge and, so it seemed, on the right side of history.
We all like to think ourselves invulnerable—another youthful conceit that’s hard to let go—but as time marches on, intimations of mortality become harder to escape or deny. That, I think, is what’s behind the ferocious reaction against the mildly mocking “OK Boomer” meme that suddenly blew up in the media over the last few weeks. The phrase has been floating around for the last 18 months, but a recent New York Times column has memorialized it in the public debate.
Now, we Boomers are the Establishment, and to cop another ‘60s phrase, Millennials and Gen Z see us as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Once we were warriors against injustice; now we’re the oppressive overlords. The Free Speech Movement was dedicated to forcing open college campuses to more diverse viewpoints; now it’s dismissed as promoting violence, hate and discrimination—and today’s activists too often see it as a moral imperative to shut it down. Some even argue explicitly that free speech is a bad thing.
The charge that the Boomer generation has caused climate change, or at best done nothing about it, especially rankles. Almost 50 years ago, we celebrated the first Earth Day and soon achieved a federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), clean air and clean water legislation, and the Endangered Species Act. Recycling, energy conservation, reducing greenhouse gases, protecting the ozone layer, reducing fossil-fuel use, promoting green energy like solar, wind, geothermal, biomass—these have been progressive policies for decades. Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming dates back to 2006, years after he first began raising the issue in a worldwide speaking tour.
It’s no knock on the courage and dedication of Greta Thunberg to say that it is annoying for the media to be canonizing a Swedish teenager as though she’s the only one speaking up or doing anything significant about climate change. Have all the Millennial journalists pushed out everyone with any institutional knowledge?
My rebuttal to all the “OK Boomer” hype and snark isn’t to take off on Millennials. They’ve got legitimate beefs about the high cost of housing and crushing student debt. For a variety of reasons—none of them selfish or malicious—we Boomers did, in fact, have a much easier time of it in the post-war period when there was no meaningful global competition. The workforce was more heavily unionized with better wages and benefits, there was no gig economy to erode company loyalty and job stability, infrastructure, public works, and public education at all levels enjoyed solid bipartisan support, the economy could support massive public and private investment in new housing construction, and conservative policies had not yet demonized government and its legitimate role as a force for good and a great social equalizer. All that is not their fault.
So, what if we call a truce: take the problems seriously and ourselves less seriously, and recognize that intergenerationally we have a lot more in common than we may want to admit.
When I look at today’s Millennials, and listen to their voices, I see myself reflected in their eyes, and hear echoes of my own youthful impatience, and sarcasm, and bravado, and idealism, and even anxieties. It’s real.
OK Millennials: you have my empathy, and my respect. And now we both have work to do.