One of my younger colleagues stopped by my office last week to alert me to something called a meme that had recently gone viral on something called TikTok. Or was it ChatSnap? Anyway, it seems that multitudes of angry Gen Zers are rallying against me and my baby-boomer compatriots for, among other sins, our poor grasp of technology, our condescending attitudes toward youth, and our stubborn refusal to make the world a better place. I’m told their pithy call to arms — “OK, boomer” — is designed to inject a dose of humility into our famously self-absorbed selves.
And to think I’d begun to lose faith in America.
Unlike the hyperbolic radio host who recently tweeted that our once-proud generational moniker has become “the n-word of ageism,” I can’t help but salute the scrappy young people who are yanking our collective chain. Their distaste for those of us who have left them such a soiled future reminds me of the way I and many of my boomer peers looked at the world that The Greatest Generation had left us a half-century ago. (Yes, it’s still all about us.)
Our grade-school years were filled with “duck-and-cover” drills that teachers promised would spare us from immolation when the Ruskies dropped The Bomb. Our black-and-white TVs brought us scenes of police dogs attacking civil-rights activists in Birmingham, Ala., and soldiers shielding a small group of black girls from jeering white protesters as they made their way to Little Rock’s newly integrated Central High School. We watched helplessly as Eisenhower’s interstate highway system and “progressive” urban designers eviscerated low-income neighborhoods.
No credit-card company would accept an application from a woman unless it was accompanied by a male’s signature. It was against the law for a racially mixed couple to marry. Gay just meant someone was happy.
Then, of course, there was Vietnam.
Every generation has its crosses to bear and its villains to blame. Some handle that more gracefully than others. My parents were born in the shadow of The War to End All Wars, came of age during the Great Depression, and survived World War II. I can now understand their desire for a “modern” postwar suburban lifestyle, even as I once criticized the enormous environmental and cultural costs of that decision.
A lot of us boomers rebelled against that conformity and eventually settled for something less than the utopia we’d envisioned. Along the way, we grew accustomed to the wrath of our many critics. In his 1978 masterpiece, The Culture of Narcissism, historian Christopher Lasch delivered a scathing smackdown of the “cultural revolution” of the Sixties by noting that it simply reproduced the worst aspects of the mainstream culture it proposed to replace.
“Cultural radicalism has become so fashionable, and so pernicious in the support it unwittingly provides for the status quo,” Lasch argued, “that any criticism of contemporary society that hopes to get beneath the surface has to criticize, at the same time, much of what currently goes under the name of radicalism.”
Someone smarter than I am could argue, I suppose, that we boomers were stymied in our world-shaping mission by the countervailing forces of global capitalism, military imperialism, and corporate media, but for me and most of my anarchist contemporaries, large-scale system change was never the point. We figured revolution was a personal project: Free yourself from the grasping materialism of mainstream America and create your own standard of living, and you could look forward to a future unencumbered by the suffocating strictures of a toxic society. We liked to think we were inspired more by Gandhi than Marx, but it was probably less Gandhi than Abbie Hoffman.
Whatever the inspiration, many of us emerged from that era viewing the world in a profoundly different way from our parent’s generation — even as many of us settled into some semblance of the bourgeois life we once so fervently disdained. We changed for the better, even though our “revolution” fell short.
So, I get the whole “OK, boomer” thing: We had all the fun and left Gen Z to clean up after the party. Their future looks cloudy enough (and their merchandizing skills savvy enough) to generate a protest movement, and if they need a villain to fuel their anger I’m happy to volunteer. After all, there’s nothing more inspiring than a bunch of young people trying to change the world.