Discord between Americans is already competently being sown by national media outlets across racial, gender and class lines. Belonging to one or another either places one on the right or wrong side of history. Another dividing line has become age. A New York Times article published recently claims the beginning of a generational conflict, but that exists to no discernibly greater extent than the past.
The article represents an approach to invoking generational differences and centers around “Ok boomer”, a retort members of Generation-Z and millennials have deployed against baby boomers who have derided younger generations. One person is selling apparel featuring the phrase. The birth of “Ok boomer”, the Times’ melodramatically writes, “marks the end of friendly generational relations”.
Of course, detachment of either generation from another is nothing new. It is a recurring meme, especially in American culture. Elders are said to be out of touch with societal standards while the young are said to be whiners who don’t know better.
But if it seems detached from reality to conclude based on a post from somewhere within the digital ether that the present is distinctly divided by generation, that’s because it is.
A myriad of factors shape individuals and entire generations that reveal themselves over time and are not premised on society’s real or perceived flaws. A popular explanation for millennials’ attitudinal disposition is that we’ve been opaquely shaped by 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the 2008 recession. But those are unlikely to define us any more than the baby boomers are today defined by their role in the civil rights movement or their anti-war rebellion against the status-quo Greatest Generation during the Vietnam war. What purpose does it then serve to construct a story of generational conflict as a seismic “ending of generational relations”?
The answer is politics. The generational conflict narrative does not exist to build bridges and holistically understand and reflect on generational differences. Rather, age — along with race, sex, and class — is being used by news media as proxies for political ideologies by attributing the salience of particular issues solely to one group. What have been presented as the trinity of generational issues that most animate younger Americans — climate change, economic inequality and gun violence — realistically are issues in which there is little daylight between younger and older generations.
This suggests the meaning behind “boomer” and the generational conflict emerging around it is more ideological. Yes, for teens using TikTok, “boomer” is a new way to express an old sentiment about elders. But for the politically hyper-engaged “boomer” will be shorthand for the inadequately woke, like former President Barack Obama, who do not subscribe to a set of predispositions espoused through maximalist rhetoric, identitarianism and vindictive classism.
That said, “boomer” did not come to be in an editorial vacuum.
Deriding Boomers acts as an indirect rebuttal of sorts to the equally reductionist narrative that blames millennials for “killing” everything from department stores to pet food to serendipity. Though not concocted by boomers or rooted in politics, this narrative tells millennials they possess less wealth relative to their parents because they blow their paychecks on avocado toast.
The counterargument is that millennials, by one measure or another, are victims of an economic climate that boomers have not sufficiently enhanced. The more nihilistic response weirdly overlaps with the boomer criticism by assuming little agency of millennials and even goes as far as to scorn millennials who enthusiastically hustle in the pursuit of purpose and self-sufficiency as pawns in a corporate dystopia.
There is some truth to both generational stereotypes. Some boomers do, consciously or otherwise, hold over cringe-inducing social and cultural mores that haven’t conformed to aspects of society’s new standards. Boomers have also contributed substantially to shoving the country into an era of equality and economic prosperity. On the other hand, there’s some credence to the perception that millennials, defined by the possibility of the future, too often pine for an adolescent past.
But despite media depictions, we millennials are not the caricatured morons sucking down Tide-Pods nor are we callow paupers. Many of us are near thirty or pushing forty. We’re full-grown professionals inheriting the work of entire industries. At least 37 percent of millennials own homes; we earn higher adjusted salaries than previous generations; and we have a substantial amount of disposable income.
We’re no more to blame for the death of various products and services than any other consumer group responding to incentives resulting from new information and technological, cultural and financial trends. It may be that refusing to buckle under the social pressure to attend college or buy a home is not the failure of any one generation to attain an opaque American ideal, but that in a more economically globalized society that ideal values different things. You know, change.
This leads to another generational divide that may become much more salient in the long-term — the rift between multi-generational and newer Americans. Newer Americans are more likely to have attended college, are more entrepreneurial and even a bit more patriotic than multi-generational Americans. From my own observations, these trends align with some attitudinal differences. Multi-generational Americans are more likely to be jaded by unjust or stubborn aspects of American culture either as a result of real hardship or an insulation from hardship. It is a sentiment I’ve encountered countlessly by those who have moved from more conservative upbringings and have made lives in places where it is more commonplace to believe that whatever ails society is a result of the sorts of values they disowned.
Single-generation Americans are more optimistic about the future, including myself, a product of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. In Austin where I live, that sense of possibility is visible in the first and second-generation Americans entering tech, medicine and business leadership.
That drive comes from multiple places including subtle (and not so subtle) nudges from parents and family to whom we are less flippantly derisive, in part, because of the enormous risks we know they took to allow their children to seize opportunities in the United States. The optimism can come from an empowering detachment from politics. More time spent, for example, growing a business within the gradient of reality alongside people of varied demeanors, talents and backgrounds leads to less bitter, richer, and more fulfilling life where making a positive difference doesn’t require a majority.
In the years and decades to come, further social integration will complicate the prevailing media narrative of a permanently disempowered minority class. The emergence of a generation of immigrants from India, Asia, Africa and Central America who lean into inheriting the American marketplace will account for a larger share of those who carry forward the American tradition, advance the national welfare, and perhaps even subsidize the lives of multi-generational Americans who have decided to disengage.
A generational war implies the fate of society rests on the (in)action of one group and the victimization of another. In reality, this so-called war ultimately amounts to something less sensational: a difference of opinion.
Hindsight will allow us to understand how misguided it is to define down entire generations by momentary politics and a culture in transition. We have no idea what we’re in for.
You can follow me on Twitter @robertisnthere.