“OK, boomer.” The refrain — withering or ironic, depending on whom you ask — has spread like wildfire on social media, even making an appearance in a parliamentary debate in New Zealand. It’s a jab from the young to the old, a collective eye-roll at the out-of-touch judgments baby boomers pass on the tastes, values and lived experiences of millennials and Gen Zers.
Moral panic about youth, and youth’s resentment of that panic, often emerges in times of rapid change, like we’re experiencing today. Ironically, today’s youths inherited a hyper-focus on generations from the 1960s, when the very boomer targets of today’s meme were themselves the younger generation under attack. But framing such conflicts in generational terms can be dangerous. Then, as now, rallying around generational identity created solidarity — but it also distracted from more fruitful conversations. In the 1960s, the real divides were about power — who had it and who did not — not about young vs. old. Getting bogged down in generation clashes ensured these problems went unresolved — and we run that risk again today if we distill our divisions into a generation gap.
America in the 1960s was rife with change: civil rights, the antiwar movement, women’s and gay liberation, the counterculture. Although people of all ages took part in the tidal wave of social change that swept America that decade, young activists got the bulk of the attention, and many of them reveled in this. Not all who were classified as youths in the 1960s fall under today’s definition of baby boomer — many 1960s leaders were born in the early 1940s, not the traditionally defined baby-boom era of 1946-1964. But lines between generations are always fuzzy, and the 1960s foot soldiers born after 1946 became most associated with the movement. Youths often led opposition to the war in Vietnam and arguments for racial and gender equality. They pushed social conventions about dress, decorum, sex and drug use. They went on strike on college campuses. Growing up in the postwar economic boom, they were free to question materialism and consumption.
Young radicals believed they were ushering in a new America, and those over 30 were hopelessly out of touch and not to be trusted. Today’s youths have “OK, boomer.” The youths of the 1960s had a different taunt: Mr. Jones, derived from the patron saint of 1960s youths, Bob Dylan, who sang, “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”