“Okay, Boomer” and Ageism

It’s become a common complaint these days: “Okay, boomer!” is ageist.

No, it’s not. It’s a rebuttal to ageism.

Full disclosure: I’m from Generation X, but I’m only a few years too young to be a Boomer. I got my Bachelors Degrees on a full ride, and my student loan debt and early career wheel-spinning were more my doing than society’s.

I have also been the victim of the sort of ageism that the US’s EEOC so defines, which is where things get tricky. “Age discrimination,” as far as the EEOC is concerned, only applies after you turn 40.

But the EEOC’s guidelines are concerned about hiring and forced retirement practices. Many companies prefer younger employees for mid to low level positions, and don’t like having to pay people for decades of experience. Plus, there are industries (such as marketing and entertainment) where there’s a premium on being fresh, young, and hip.

So someone over 40 has a significantly harder time getting or keeping many kinds of positions. At least, that’s the argument, and it was true in a different time, in a different economy. I really don’t know how true it is in 2020.

And to my understanding, the EEOC guidelines weren’t really meant to apply to interoffice, intragenerational snarking, like “Okay, boomer.”

Enough about that, though. Back to the key point: It’s a rebuttal to ageism.

As far as I can tell, “okay, boomer” is a manifestation of a larger practice: Marginalized groups getting tired of trying to have serious, meaningful conversations with culturally dominant groups who obtusely don’t get it.

“Okay, boomer” is not about all Baby Boomers, and not even just about Baby Boomers. I’m willing to bet that Pete Buttigieg (a Millennial, barely) is more like to be a recipient than Bernie Sanders (who is on the Boomer-Silent cusp).

It’s about older people who don’t understand that we have a new economy, and that what worked for them decades ago isn’t going to work these days. It’s about older people who characterize complaints about how expensive college is, how difficult it is to get an entry-level job, the challenge of getting a mortgage, and so on as “whining”.

These are real complaints. We live in an oligarchy where the billionaires are dedicated to exploiting employees for their personal wealth. This is not utterly new: The economy was similar prior to the Great Depression, before a series of Presidents from F. D. Roosevelt (Democrat) to Eisenhower (Republican) created government structures and supported laws to dismantle it.

That and the post-World War II domination of the US in the world economy led to a period of prosperity. Those days are gone, though, and CEOs and other billionaires, most of whom are Baby Boomers, have used their political clout to gut many of the protections from that era.

Compound this with the notion that older White men are trained to speak as if they’re experts on everything, and we have Millennials (and, increasingly, Gen Zs) who are justifiably sick of hearing it.

A few decades ago, it used to be possible to have a minimum wage job and get a year’s college tuition after about five weeks of full time work. That meant: Go home for the summer, work two-thirds of the time, live at home, and you’ll have tuition by the end of it.

Now, it takes about 35 weeks of full time work to earn a year’s worth of tuition at the same school. Anyone who can look at that stat, process it, and then come back to, “Yes, but, hard work!” deserves a sneer and an “okay, boomer!”

Older people can absolutely be the victims of ageism. But this ain’t it.

This isn’t about young people refusing to respect their elders. This is about younger people being sick of being disrespected by those among their elders who want to act as if the country’s economy is the same as it was 40 years ago.

I entered the work world during a rapidly changing economy. My brother, only three years older than me, had an easier time during his Salad Days finding work with Kelly and the other secretarial temp services. I got a degree in computer programming in an era when program lines were still numbered and home computers were something of a luxury.

I’ve sat through job interviews where it was obvious that my current computer skills were irrelevant because of my fifteen-year-old, non-OOP degree. Where I could feel, “You’re just too old for an entry level position” spinning around in the interviewer’s head.

So I’ve seen both sides, and I have a fairly clear understanding of when the rapid changes happened. But I think it’s possible to object to the way older employees and candidates are treated and, at the same time, realize that the Millennials are facing real, separate issues of their own. Issues we older folks will struggle even understanding.

I don’t see this as disrespect for my age. Then again, I’ve never been so arrogant as to think that getting older guaranteed getting wiser. I don’t deserve more respect merely by virtue of having lived half a century.

I see a lot of people complain about the lack of civility and willingness to discuss issues online.

In discussions on race, the complainers are almost always White.

In discussions on gender, the complainers are almost always men.

And in discussions on being a younger adult, the complainers are almost always older.

Oh yeah, and the complainers are almost always clueless and tone-deaf on what they’d like to discuss. They either want to start from square one or, even worse, they condescendingly assume they know better than the people living the experience.

It’s no wonder that some people have gotten sick of trying to form a coherent, detailed, suitably “civil” response.

It’s no wonder some of them have resorted to “Okay, boomer.”

Condescending? Yes. Dismissive? Yes. Designed to end a conversation? Yes.

But when you’ve tried, over and over, to have a real conversation, there comes a point when that’s all that’s left.

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