How a Viral Cultural Outburst Defines the Anger of the Younger Generations by Erasing the History of the Older Ones
The following is the product of a series of discussions among members and supporters of the Workers’ Group on the cultural phenomenon known as “OK Boomer.” The purpose of these conversations was to understand not only the motivations behind the phrase, but also the social contradictions that allowed it to become so widespread. A more comprehensive document, addressing the broader social, political, and cultural questions surrounding the use of this phrase, will appear in the next (Summer 2020) issue of our theoretical and discussion journal, Class Line.
WHEN TALKING ABOUT the reasons behind the “OK Boomer” phenomenon, it is important to start with a general historical context. In this case, we will need to start with the general cultural tendency of inter-generational conflict and tension.
Generations, as we know them, are a capitalist creation. Each generation roughly coincides with a necessary change in the way that the mode of production interacts with society as a whole, with common experiences tied directly to the ebb and flow of capitalist society. This in turn reflects changes in production and exchange designed to meet the general needs of capitalism that arise when a new wave of both exploiters and exploited appear.
Culturally, this development, this shift in focus, fosters secondary antagonisms toward newer generations among the exploiters. This happens because the concrete by-products of generational development are lower profits and the need to invest capital to remain competitive. Through bourgeois ideology, these antagonisms filter down into all classes as a kind of ritual hazing that is reproduced with every new generation. Thus, every generation faces these antagonisms and every generation, as it matures, will reproduce and use them.
This typecasting aids capitalism by creating specialized, niche markets that cater to one group of people, and by reinforcing other antagonisms the exploiting classes use for maintenance and intensification of their rule.
As capitalism continues its decay, this antagonism has taken on a special malignancy, with each succeeding generation having a sharper and more destructive experience.
It was inevitable that this intensified antagonism — e.g., “Millennials are killing [fill in the blank]” — would lead to a backlash. This is especially true since, as it became more hostile and unacceptable, few spoke up to denounce it. Hence, “OK Boomer,” an equally unhealthy and unacceptable response — but also understandable, given the conditions.
Ironically, even though Millennials are regarded in the media as the creators of “OK Boomer,” it did not, in fact, come from them. According to the publicly known, agreed-upon history, it was a pair of Generation Xers that invented the phrase and released it on the Internet. And yet, Millennials take the heat for that, too! Is it any wonder why younger generations are so salty and angry that they would resort to using such a phrase so much?
COMPARED TO MANY of the slurs older generations hurl at the younger ones, “OK Boomer” is a relatively tame response. Why then should we care so much about its use, especially since, like all such responses, it is likely to fade away over time?
Some advocates of the use of “OK Boomer” argue that it is not intended as an attack based on generations. Rather, they argue, it is based on a particular worldview that predominates in the Baby Boomer generation: privileged, arrogant and conservative. According to this argument, a 20-year-old who demonstrated such a viewpoint would receive an “OK Boomer” just as easily as a 60-year-old.
This argument, however, contains its own refutation. By stereotyping the Baby Boomer view in this way, by generalizing the views of some as the views of all, it reveals itself as a discriminatory attack on that generation.
Stereotypes by their very nature are inaccurate. And it is the inaccuracies of the “OK Boomer” stereotype that make it dangerous, not to the older generations, but to the younger ones. By generalizing the Baby Boomers as a bulwark of reaction, “OK Boomer” erases an entire generation of militants from history.
Far from the stereotyped perceptions of Baby Boomers currently being promoted, it was this generation that threw itself into the fight against war, both in the streets and within the ranks of the military. It was the generation that fought racism, segregation and police repression (Civil Rights Movement; Black Panthers) — that fought sexism, sex discrimination on the job and social inequality — that fought homophobic bigotry and violence, often initiated by the cops (Stonewall Rebellion) — that fought rampant pollution, smog and environmental devastation.
It was the generation of workers that engaged in strikes, mass protests and wildcat actions over more than just “bread and butter issues;” strikes against the war in Indochina, against racism and against capitalist production itself were common. Some of these actions shook the very core of capitalism and, in a few cases, even directly challenged its rule.
However, with two words, these militants — some of whom gave up everything they had, including their lives, in the course of struggle — are completely erased from history.
The danger of erasing these people from history is greater for the younger generations than for the older ones. For those who know history, the similarities between the Baby Boomers and those generations struggling for social change today are uncanny. This is true both for the issues that are important to them, but also for the problems that surround the movements that they are building.
By erasing past generations from history, current generations are denied the ability to learn from their mistakes. By erasing their experiences and the lessons they offer, current generations are doomed to walk the same path, thus becoming what they now despise.
In recent years one of the most striking differences between older and newer generations has been a greater awakening of and reach toward class consciousness. Unlike generations of the past, influenced by the myth of the Great American Classless Society™, the younger generations began to show an increasing awareness of class and its importance. For this reason, the ruling classes needed something that could erase the lessons of past struggles (the most important of which was the role of classes and the class struggle). “OK Boomer” serves this need perfectly.
As for the privileges enjoyed by the Baby Boomers, they didn’t magically develop. They were a result of the military victory of the imperialist Allies in World War II. Tens of millions of workers were killed or maimed to secure dominance of Washington and Wall Street over its great power rivals. Part of that was pacifying workers (and their new families) with bribes: cheap housing, free or low-cost education, jobs with decent wages, and so on.
Thus, it can be rightly said that part of the rationale behind “OK Boomer” is an unconsciously reactionary desire to replicate the conditions following WWII — i.e., U.S. domination through the slaughter of millions — for the benefit of the younger generations.
As we mentioned above, this question raises many more issues that we cannot explore in the space available here. The next issue of Class Line will carry a more detailed analysis, as well as supplementary articles.