"Ok, Boomer"
Millennials have been bombarded with names for their generation for years, now it's the Baby Boomer's turn. (Illustration by Natasha McDonald, Columbia College Chicago)

Can the ‘OK Boomer’ Meme Be a Productive Conversation Tool?

The retaliation toward a critical older generation with this new phrase certainly ignites discussion, but at what cost?

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"Ok, Boomer"

The retaliation toward a critical older generation with this new phrase certainly ignites discussion, but at what cost?

How do you manage hostility during a heated exchange? Does the old adage “agree to disagree” come into play? Maybe you try to find common ground or jump to a tepid topic before the conversation becomes too intense. In your experience, is it ever productive to display disgust or downright contempt for the perceived opponent? Recently, the new phrase “OK Boomer,” in addition to inspiring an impressive number of memes, launched these matters into public discourse.

The statement is most easily understood in its proper context. In a viral TikTok video, where a member of the baby boomer generation lists young peoples’ moral failures, the phrase “OK Boomer” begins to dot the comment section.

It’s a declaration of resignation and disgust reserved for comments deemed too ridiculous to warrant a response. The phrase frequently surfaces around issues like climate change, financial inequality and the economy’s ravaged state. Any statement, however, can bring the famous gibe into conversation.

Of course, the viral insult did not develop in isolation. A cacophony of famous slights aimed toward the younger generations exists in popular conversation. “Snowflake” is a well-known example, meant to deride a fragile, easily wounded person. Speakers hurl words like “entitled” with a palpable air of condescension. Oftentimes, a person simply saying the word “millennial” dredges up derisive connotations. Like these well-known digs, “OK Boomer” carries an exasperated overtone.

Some onlookers might hesitate to categorize “OK Boomer” with the list of anti-youth phrases in any way. After all, isn’t this phrase a reaction to an endless stream of slights aimed at young people? Despite its sympathetic origins, the apparent intentions behind “OK Boomer” closely resemble that of other well-known gibes.

First, the phrase makes a sweeping generalization about an entire group of people. Then, the slight aims to shut down conversation between conflicting parties. Even if one does view the phrase as mere retaliation, the comeback still mimics the crudities of other common insults.

In some cases, however, the phrase can prompt deep conversation between generations. For example, a mother in an NPR debate details an exchange between her and her middle school-age son. In the end, she calls this interaction “hilarious, wonderful and enlightening” because of the new ideas each party gained throughout their discussion. Could “OK Boomer” stand as a productive trend simply for the new interactions it initiates?

Online, the rise of “OK Boomer” has ignited fierce conversations about ethical communication. The conversation is chaotic and divided, but it’s nonetheless going on.

In an NBC News article, Meghan Gerhardt urges people to “think about what different generations can both teach and learn from each other, and how those conversations can result in entirely new ways of solving problems.” At the end of a CNN opinion piece, Jill Filipovic summarizes that “the ‘generational warfare’ frame makes us talk past each other and puts us all on the defensive.” In a Bloomberg article, Tyler Cowen reveals, “My biggest worry about ‘OK Boomer’ is the generational stereotyping it embodies.” Suddenly, individuals on the internet are concerned about gracious, productive communication.

However, the conversational merit of “OK Boomer” remains small. After all, the phrase hinges on a sweeping generalization and then immediately becomes dismissive in nature. When conversationalists accept stereotypes and shut down discussion, polarization thrives on each side of the political spectrum.

Awareness of mutual humanity declines until, as Aberjhani once noted, “fear fueled by uninformed assumptions, cultural prejudice, desperation to meet basic human needs, or the panicked uncertainty of the moment explodes into violence.”

By and large, “OK Boomer” is unconducive to a substantive conversation, but this doesn’t mean the trend is unprovoked. As a group, younger generations receive the blame for every cultural phenomenon imaginable. Apparently, millennials alone have ruined dinner dates, napkins, running and diamonds. America’s youth are on the receiving end of some well-known insults, and this list only seems to grow with time. Additionally, the upcoming generation will inherit complex, unprecedented issues to solve.

Still, the phrase “OK Boomer” fails to facilitate the level-headed exchange of ideas that will solve these issues. In a society driven by ideas, methodical conversation is an essential step towards advancement. When people with intense differences exchange perspectives both parties leave with the opportunity to funnel newfound ideas toward innovation.

As John Stuart Mill, an influential 19th-century philosopher, states, “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves … Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.” Without challenging discussions between diverse people groups, advancement gradually decreases.

With the relevant words of a 19th-century philosopher in mind, one reality becomes undeniable: “OK Boomer” is not a conversation novelty. Individuals create phrases to convey disgusted dismissal and have likely formulated them since the beginning of time.

As Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council, states, “We know of no people without names, no languages or cultures in which some manner of distinctions between self and other, we and they are not made.” Conflicting ideologies separate the population and popular conversation reflects the divide. Levels of vehemence might vary, but the tempting urge to deride, disengage or dismiss will always exist within conversation.

Progress, however, typically demands a different approach. The ideal could require conversationalists to veil disgust and stifle rage in pressing exchanges. Listeners might need to renounce meme references in favor of engaging a human being with a malleable mind. Of course, the other party could reject all ideas  dissimilar to their own view.

In fact, odds are this is exactly what will happen. Occasionally, however, a person rises to the standards you set for them. If you opt to pursue substance rather than divisive insults, the perceived opponent might follow suit. In the end, your conversation could evolve into an engaging, thought-provoking and ultimately productive experience.

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