How ‘OK, Boomer’ Went From Meme to Supreme (Court)

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(Bloomberg) -- Can saying “OK, boomer” at work constitute age discrimination? Inquiring minds, among them U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, want to know. While the jury’s out, workers might want to exercise caution when using this phrase around the office. But they shouldn’t be surprised if younger generations roll their eyes at the heightened concern.

1. What’s ‘OK, boomer’?

“OK, boomer” took off early last year as a snappy, youthful retort, especially online, to the concerns and concern-trolling of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, i.e. the postwar Baby Boom generation. Like many things on the internet, subtlety and nuance are not exactly the point. Hand-wringing about so-called cancel culture? OK, boomer. Attributing the delayed life-markers of younger generations -- home-purchasing, marriage, children and retirement savings -- to personal failure rather than an inhospitable economic climate? OK, boomer. Feeling disrespected by kids saying “OK, boomer”? OK, boomer.

2. Why the attitude?

To understand “OK, boomer,” it helps to appreciate the deluge of scantily researched, begs-the-question magazine profiles, think-pieces and marketing research targeting one generation that frequently deploys the phrase: millennials, those born from 1981 to 1996. (The smaller Generation X came in between.) This body of work has attempted to portray more than 70 million people as a one-size-fits-all caricature -- entitled, narcissistic, lazy, selfish -- and accuses them of destroying beloved products and traditions that make America great, such as brass-railed casual dining chains, over-sized suburban homes, paper towels that inexplicably come folded into squares, diamonds, and the land-use nightmare known as golf. A similar offensive is now being launched against the so-called zoomers, post-millennials.

3. Where does ‘OK, boomer’ come from?

One examination found the first recorded use of the phrase on a Reddit post in 2009. It became popular a decade later when it was used in a TikTok clip that went viral. “OK, boomer” is a natural heir to “Old Economy Steven,” a 2012-vintage image macro that contrasted the lived experiences of boomers with those younger. Old Economy Steven grew up in an era of expanding global cooperation; shared and unprecedented growth; robust public investment; affordable housing, health care and education; and high marginal tax rates that financed a protective social safety net. For his successors, there’s yawning inequality, runaway costs, crippling debt, austerity, assaults on universal programs, ascendant autocracy and the precarity and anxiety those things generate. Old Economy Steven had trouble grokking that things had changed.

4. How’d it get to the Supreme Court?

The chief justice posed a hypothetical question during oral arguments Jan. 15 in a case in which a woman alleges the Department of Veterans Affairs denied her opportunities for promotion because of her gender and age. He asked: if someone says, “OK, boomer,” to a job applicant, would that be significant enough to show age discrimination?

5. What does Gen X think of all this?

Who?

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