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Are baby boomers—the generation born between 1946 and 1964—the most privileged, spoiled, and clueless generation in history? Subsequent generations seem to think so, which is why “OK boomer” has become a thing on social media. The phrase is described as an electronic eyeroll, a dismissal of lectures from the old folks in their mortgage-free suburban homes with riding mowers and Medicare. Are you of an age to wonder why millennials can’t move out of Mom’s basement? OK boomer. To riff on the unrealistic expectations of your company’s latest 25-year-old employee? OK boomer. Fulminate on the latest campus meltdown from outraged snowflakes? Well, you get the picture.
An amusing Twitter exchange occurred when veteran actor William Shatner got OK boomer’ed. “Sweetheart,” he replied, “that’s a compliment to me.” Born in 1931, he’s of an earlier time, though his signature character is certainly a boomer icon. His respondent fired back, “What’s the term for people when they can’t interpret a joke?” Shatner’s response: “Millennial?” Kirk out!
Speaking as a boomer, all this sounds eerily familiar. We ragged on our parents—the Greatest Generation—for their materialism and racism and suppression of women, and then went on to do something about it. The civil rights movement, the gold standard of modern social reform, was led by Greats but fueled by boomers who marched and sat in and got themselves arrested. For good and for ill, boomers initiated social revolution. And invented rock ’n’ roll.
But then we got old, and the eternal gripe of the oldsters is, You kids don’t appreciate what we did for you. The protest of youth, then and now, is, Look at the mess you left us to clean up! Both are true: Every generation, at least in living memory, can point to some positive accomplishments and to some consequential failures. Are boomers exceptional?
In some ways, exceptionally blessed. We arrived at the beginning of a postwar boom that saw a dramatic rise in blue-collar wages and college attendance. Most of us grew up in comfort, if not abundance, with cheap medical insurance, low taxes, and Mom fixing after-school snacks. Our homes were stable and our churches well-attended, and our parents were determined to spare us the hardships they endured.
We came of age in a time of particular social importance, with a sense of destiny and mission, intensified by assassinations and campus violence and chemical highs. We went through some bad years in the 1970s but rebounded into the sunlit 1980s, acquiring kids and McMansions and running up the national debt. Very possibly, we’re the last generation to receive regular Social Security checks.
And another thing, perhaps more significant than all the rest: Boomers were the first generation to take control of childbearing, through available contraception and legal abortion. The natural bond between generations became a matter of choice (ideally if not actually), and children less an obligation than an experience—perhaps even an experiment. That may be why our grandchildren are looking askance at us. And they have a point.
For all the benefits of the civil rights movement, and to some extent the women’s movement, unintended consequences limped behind like wounded refugees. As “rights” expanded, responsibilities shrank, both personal and political. Now, with fewer young people getting married and starting families, apocalypse around every corner, and a staggering multitrillion-dollar deficit threatening to topple any moment, it’s not entirely wrong to trace millennial angst back to their grandparents.
But we boomers didn’t invent ourselves. Our parents, flush with victory after World War II, wanted to give us everything. We, fired up with unrealistic expectations, wanted to deny our children nothing. Our children, increasingly anxious, want to shield their children from anything that causes anxiety, and those children are floundering in the wake of unmoored certainties.
Each generation passes on its inheritance, good and bad, from the previous to the next, but each will have to answer for itself. The next time I’m tempted to complain about kids today, may I have the grace to pray for them instead.