Sept. 4, 2020 | By Emma McDermott | Illustration by Xixi Qin
The term ‘boomer,’ slang for baby boomer, has become widely popularized by teenagers and young adults in the past year, especially in memes and on social media platforms, such as TikTok. It is typically used by young people to name-call someone older than them who holds a differing, usually more traditionalist, opinion.
I want to clarify that I am in no way trying to equate the usage of ageist slang, like ‘boomer,’ to the continued usage of racial slurs, specifically those directed toward African Americans and Black Americans, or homophobic rhetoric. To do this would be a gross underrepresentation of the environment that racist, anti-LGBTQ+, xenophobic, ableist, anti-Semitic, and other dehumanizing language has created for the marginalized groups on the receiving end.
I do, however, want to point out that ageist rhetoric falls under the umbrella of dehumanizing language and should be expelled from our vernacular along with all other derogatory slurs.
What upsets me, even as a young person, about using the phrase “OK, Boomer” is that it reduces older people to their age. The teenagers and young adults who use this derogatory term effectively treat older generations with a general dismissiveness based on nothing beside the fact that the other person is older than they are and may have a differing opinion.
Age is as random and uncontrollable of a trait as gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, or place of origin. If it’s not OK to use racist or homophobic language, which it should not be, then why do some young people think it’s okay to use ageist language?
Some might argue that older people tend to view current issues through a more traditional lens than younger, and usually more progressive, people would like. But why is that grounds to dismiss a person from the conversation altogether? There is both space and necessity for people of all ages to join important discussions.
As local communities and as a country, it’s important that we have a plethora of diverse perspectives, including younger and older voices, so that we can make decisions with the wisdom and experience often provided by older individuals and with the energy and passion often provided by younger people. That’s the reason the most famous climate activist in the world, and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019, Greta Thunberg, is 17 years old and meeting with world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
We need young voices in important conversations, especially about what the future will look like. As young people, we also need to respect the experience, foresight, and ideas that older people can offer. By no means am I saying we should tolerate close-minded rhetoric; instead, I am saying that responding to an insensitive or charged comment with “OK, Boomer” shows a disrespect for that person’s humanity. Nobody called rapper, fashion designer, and husband to Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, a ‘boomer’ when he suggested that slavery was a choice, but teenagers throw the word around liberally to describe parents who worry their kid is smoking too much weed.
We should all be able to criticize each other for ideas, language, and action. There is nothing wrong with a young person disagreeing with an older person; it is only when that criticism is based on an arbitrary and uncontrollable factor that this becomes an issue. If you want to criticize someone, criticize them for what they’re saying or doing, not for what they look like, where they’re from, who they’re attracted to, or how many birthdays they’ve celebrated.
Normalizing ageist rhetoric will only turn out poorly for the generations that allow and encourage its usage. Young people today should not post information on social media about work that calls for equity, antiracism, and the general dignified treatment of all people – all of which is certainly necessary and worthy – and simultaneously employ ageist rhetoric while shaming fellow members of their age cohort for not being as socially and politically active online. People who behave this way are, at best, blind to their hypocrisy.
If it’s socially acceptable for young people to treat others differently, sometimes in a discriminatory way, based on age, then it is very difficult to argue that other types of discrimination – based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, income, and other protected statuses – have no place in our society. Plus, the young people who use this rhetoric now will one day be old people. I don’t think they’ll like it too much when younger generations start telling them their time is over.