'OK, Boomer' Is Too Timid

Young people are right. Old people are trying to harm them.

I’m dismayed to discover that some members of my generation have sided with the generation before us in condemning a trendy catch-phrase among younger Americans. Of all people, Generation X (born 1965-1980) should know better than to join the wrong side of a generational war raging at least since Richard Nixon’s second term.

Let me rephrase. It’s not a war in the sense that two sides are clashing. It’s more one-sided. It’s only when young Americans, whether Millennials or Generation Z (ages 7-22), stand up and say something about the war that you hear anything about it in the mainstream news media. Baby boomers own and run the news media. They make the big decisions. Their hold on our news media, our political culture, and what we’re even allowed to talk about is so complete as to be invisible. So when young Americans come up with a flippant catch-phrase like “OK, Boomer” to acknowledge the war, it’s news. There’s never been “friendly generational relations.” Young people are getting woke.

There’s never been “friendly generational relations.”

Let me rephrase again. It’s not so much a one-sided war as a kind of slow-motion sabotage of the very society that created the richest and most politically powerful cohort the world has ever seen. It’s no stretch to say young white baby boomers had every advantage one could imagine from a government shaped and informed by the compromises of the New Deal (later the Great Society). Free college, low-cost housing, thriving wages, and an ever-expanding economy. It’s no stretch to say this same generation did not want to share the blessings of an expanded democracy with the generations that came afterward. The ladder was dropped down for them. They climbed it. They pulled it up behind them. And that started with Generation X.

We should know better. Generation Z, which includes my own daughter, is going to face problems boomers refuse to concede are problems at all. Generation X should understand this well. We have been living under the shadow of the boomer generation our entire lives. So much so in fact that many people forget we even exist. And there’s another thing we understand. Most boomers don’t get it. Never will. Many Gen Xers get it. We have for a long time. Let’s not make common cause with the wrong side.

What do we get? Lots, but what comes to mind is that the boomer generation isn’t really what we’re told it is. To be sure, baby boomers in their youth protested the Vietnam War, marched for civil rights, went to Woodstock, and all that. But that warm nostalgia is contravened by an ice-cold fact. Since 1972, a majority of boomers has voted for the Republican candidate in all but one presidential election. That was Jimmy Carter in 1976, probably due to Watergate’s reformist aftermath. Other than that, boomers went with the Republican each and every time. Yes, not all. But most.

Again: Not all, but most. And I’m not singling out a majority unfairly. This is fair. Because the biggest generation in size and influence voted for the Republican candidate in all but one presidential election in nearly half a century, boomers are responsible more than any other group of Americans for the dominance of the Republican Party between Reagan’s election in 1980 and the financial panic of 2007-2008. They are responsible for the long contraction of government activism in the lives of ordinary Americans. They are responsible for massive inequities of power and wealth. They are responsible for assaults on the law, morality, the environment and on the truth. They are responsible for what was the “conservative consensus” in which everyone, even liberals, agreed that government was best when it governed least.

“OK, Boomer” tries hard to avoid offending people offended by virtually all political reality.

That consensus cracked with the election of the first black president. That’s when limited government, fiscal responsibility and all the other conservative principles were no longer sufficient for a generation suddenly awakened by societal change. The America they grew up in was no longer the America they were living in, and they lashed back against Barack Obama the way they lashed back against 1960s social justice movements. Only this time, instead of creating a new world on an egalitarian foundation of the New Deal, they longed to create a new world on a foundation of selfishness and greed. Democracy wasn’t the solution. Democracy was the problem.

The biggest American generation in size and influence looked at the younger and rising generations voting for hope and change in 2008, and said no. You can’t have the house. We’ll burn it down first. This is what the boomers should be known for. Not peace and love. The “culture war” is drawn out generational conflict that on occasion spasms violently. Only the young are not equals to the old, because the old have all the money and power. Young Americans are right to suspect that older Americans are trying to harm them. But most boomers refuse to call it a war. They’d have to look at themselves if they did. It’s easier to blame “political correctness” or condescend to youth facing incredible challenges. It’s easier to be offended by “OK, Boomer.”

If anything, “OK, Boomer” is too timid. It tries to avoid offending people offended by the acknowledgement of political reality. By virtually everything. Though we failed, Generation X wasn’t timid. We don’t have much, but at least we can offer that.

—John Stoehr