In July 2001, I was 26 and living in New York, basking in the glow of the city’s punk scene from the ’70s, dancing to post-punk pastiche of the ’80s, and dressing like a mod from the ’60s. I didn’t know the name for my generation — I was born in 1975, technically placing me on the tail-end of the 1965 to 1980 Generation X spectrum — and neither 9/11 nor The Walkmen had yet come around to tell me that historical epochs were important. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs had just released their first self-titled EP; its closing song was called “Our Time,” and we already knew the words. When the band ended its shows with the chorus of “it’s our time to be hated” (this was obviously before “Maps”), everybody sang along and felt it in our bones. It was as much a plea as a statement of fact. Old people didn’t hate us — they didn’t even really care about us.
Does the above paragraph make you want to defenestrate yourself? Good. Welcome to the wooly and wild world of generational exceptionalism. This is where the diss-by-omission that is “OK Boomer” comes in. For those readers unwilling to follow the vagaries of memetic language, “OK Boomer” is a phrase first used on Reddit in 2015 but was recently popularized on Tik Tok and Twitter as a hashtaggable response to condescending old people. It’s a sarcastic rejoinder to older folks’ use of terms like “snowflake” and “SJW” to describe young people, or, for actual Boomers who fear that this jokey insult will somehow reveal they don’t deserve the op-ed columns they’ve mysteriously held onto for the past two decades, it is an ageist, odious call to violence that will inevitably lead to Wild in the Streets-style internment camps.
Now that I’m old and infirm (I’m 44), I fear and respect teenagers, as their capacity for cruelty knows no bounds.
The concept of “OK Boomer,” however, is historical canon; the first “OK Boomer” moment perhaps occurred in the Old Testament when Abraham decided to tie Isaac up and sacrifice him to God. Ever since then, everyone, regardless of their side in the conflict, has loved generational distinctions, which are much like astrology in that they even flatter in the negative. And if you have ignored whatever semblance of your sanity that has not been devoured by online brain worms and are still reading this, even better — you’re ready for another essay on “OK Boomer.” Like the Old Testament and climate change, we’re living in the discourse flood times. And, taking a cue from that other early-aughts prophet, Andrew W.K., we’re all here to get wet.
Speaking of brain worms, if one is (like me) inclined to hate-read New York Times op-ed pieces like it’s one’s job, one will come away with the impression that Gen Xers are jaded and apathetic, Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) are babies, and that all Zoomers (those born after 1997) are full of ageist spite. I begrudge the writers of these pieces nothing. But, though I firmly believe that all generational talk is pure marketing hokum, I want to discuss my generation, X, for no other reason than being ignored hurts my feelings. Or my sense of history. Whichever scans better.
There’s a reason my generation was, and is, a touch jaded. We held mass protests against two wars in Iraq that were promptly ignored by both the government and the media. My youth was the era of — in no particular order — Rage Against the Machine, veganism, the Beastie Boys, Free Tibet, the World Trade Organization protests, “Mean People Suck” T-shirts, yelling at people for dancing too hard, and political correctness as both a genuine notion and right-wing boogeyman. And that’s just the popular stuff. Don’t even get me started on ’90s hardcore and its tendency to preface a two-minute song about the singer’s ex-best friend’s betrayal with a 10-minute speech about how wearing suede sneakers is literally mass murder. We weren’t just caring and earnest in our ambition to save the world, we were downright insufferable. We contained multitudes, and we told the world so with our t-shirts.
Sure, most people back then didn’t give a shit beyond their Clinton-era personal comforts. But “most” isn’t how we remember culture. Most Boomers weren’t at Woodstock, and most Zoomers aren’t attending climate-change protests (and god knows there’s no shortage of smirking teenagers in MAGA hats), but news of those who do attend still goes viral. Trying to talk about a country the size of America with lazy delineations of “everybody” or “nobody” feeling or acting a particular way has become the foolhardy norm.
I am both gifted and cursed with a visceral memory of what being 15 was like — by this, I mean I still deeply relate to Minor Threat lyrics — and I distinctly remember that neither I nor anyone I knew was smart or good.
While I busy myself crying about everybody mischaracterizing old people of my particular vintage as having been fashionably nihilistic, I can’t help but feel that young people view my generation as not worth the time of their contempt, and that gets my Dickies in a bunch. Just how hypocritical and selfish, ’70s-fetishizing and Lewinsky-demonizing, tribal-tattooed and murderous-Iraq-war-supporting, Friends-watching and Afghanistan-ignoring does a generation have to be to get any anti-credit around here? We embraced vague existential/economic dissatisfaction as brand. (We didn’t have “OK Boomer,” but we did have OK Computer.) We commodified punk, came up with nu-metal and electronica, took Paul Veerhoven’s Starship Troopers at face value, and somehow managed to “invent” “irony” and pronounce its death.
And still, the babies, who can’t even keep a straight face when we talk about “the golden age of hip-hop,” refuse to rate the members of Gen X deserving our own ephemeral put-down. Gen X is terrible, if anyone is. The endless discourse positioning generations as these communal personalities, set in stone and unchangeable, is infuriating. But still, I want my slice of hate-pie. (In the last 15 minutes or so, someone seems to have invented a Gen X-specific putdown, “OK Karen.” Whether this is a BuzzFeed hoax or some anti-No Wave Karen O slander is immaterial. It is, like “hope punk” or “voters who went to Trump because of the intolerant Left,” purely a media fantasy. Ignore it like you’d ignore a flat-earther at the bar.)
As someone whose cohort was also written off as lazy, ruined by technology, and having particularly inane song lyrics, I want to see Millennials and Zoomers swaddled from criticism, while at the same time, I’m left feeling deeply resentful of their wholesale theft of our “lazy, ruined by technology, bad lyrics” schtick. Do you people honestly believe we wouldn’t have stared at our smartphones back then if we’d had them? All the Lollapaloozas after the first were boring as hell. Given a choice between Pearl Jam and an iPhone, I wouldn’t have looked up once.
I’d find young people subscribing to the tired religiosity of “us good/them bad” a bummer only if I held them to a higher standard than all the old weirdos who lurked in my social spaces as a teen. I do not. I am both gifted and cursed with a visceral memory of what being 15 was like — by this, I mean I still deeply relate to Minor Threat lyrics — and I distinctly remember that neither I nor anyone I knew was smart or good. To be young is to be in the drift of possibility, but its only guarantees are strong opinions, raging hormones, and whatever chaos ensues when you combine the two.
Now that I’m old and infirm (I’m 44), I fear and respect teenagers, as their capacity for cruelty knows no bounds. But I also realize that it’s only a few short years before Zoomers’ witty knives are broken or at least dulled. That’s what happens: young people’s brutal honesty turns into culturally mandated politesse (or “civility”) and becomes feigned empathy for those feeling the brunt of the systemic cruelty we’re all complicit in. So until then, if they want to squabble with their elders just like the Greatest Generation, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and everyone else did and will do in the future, I say “go with God.” All I almost-sincerely ask, of op-ed writers and online posters alike, is a certain specificity of memory, and the language to match. And I will hold my breath. As noted, futility is kind of our “thing.”