"Ok Boomer" in the Age of Covid
“Ok, Boomer.” The phrase is short, but disarming. It reads in a patronizing tone, dripping with sneering dismissiveness. It is versatile; it can be a response to just about anything, as long as it was said by someone born between 1946 and 1964. And in late 2019, its rise in popularity reflected a mounting tension: just four months before most Americans had ever heard of the “coronavirus,” the Baby Boomer generation and Generation Z (born after 1996) were butting heads on a national scale.
The tension is largely political. Many GenZers blame the Boomer generation for creating and perpetuating problems like climate change, systemic racism, homophobia, and income inequality, and for passing down a world that feels impossibly disordered. The sentiment is something along the lines of: move aside—we are the ones who need to fix this, so let us get to work. It is a struggle for power, but on the micro level it is also a struggle about values and family; for the many Boomers who have children or grandchildren in Gen Z, it may feel like just because they grew up in a world that is considered less “woke” by today’s standards, their younger family members deny that they have anything valuable to teach them.
Aspects of these tensions are timeless. Teens have always rolled their eyes at the advice of their parents, and parents have always pulled the “Back in my day” card to claim that the latest generation is going downhill. Other aspects are unique. With all the ways technology has rapidly changed the world in the past few decades, the generational divide is bound to be vast between those born before the Internet and after it. In 2019, these tensions came together to fuel things like the dismissal of Greta Thunberg as a whiny teenager, and the sale of hoodies that read “Ok boomer have a terrible day.” Both these old and young generations were often quick to point fingers at the other, and poke fun at the others' values and politics.
Back then, no one anticipated the ways the world would be upended four months later. But inevitably, as the novel coronavirus began to spread through the United States, this backdrop of intergenerational conflict would inform the way the pandemic was understood.
In March of 2020, when the pandemic alarms first were sounded, many felt that young people were the ones throwing caution to the wind. One warning from a doctor in Western Europe was particularly scathing; it read, “Young and unafraid of the coronavirus? Good for you. Now stop killing people.” It was clear from the beginning that in young people, the coronavirus most often manifests as nothing more dangerous than the flu, while for older people, it poses higher risks. But this doctor’s warning urged young people to think about the risks their activity poses to others, particularly older and more vulnerable people to whom they might ‘carry’ the germ. The Director-General of the World Health Organization, too, emphasized: "I have a message for young people: You are not invincible, this virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you. Even if you don't get sick the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else."
At the same time, however, others argued that the Baby Boomers were the ones refusing to take appropriate precautions. Young people commiserated about the challenges of trying to persuade their parents to stay inside. It was a unique—and, for many, premature—role reversal, in which parents were the ones being naughty and unsafe, and children the ones scolding them. Boomers have been known to lament Gen Z’s “snowflakey” sensitivity, and some may have interpreted the younger generation’s anxieties as just another example of it. Then, we saw the pitting of elderly lives against economic recovery. While some argued that reopening the economy was important because the coronavirus cure should not “be worse than the problem itself,” others lashed back, arguing that older people’s lives should not be sacrificed on behalf of Wall Street. Many younger people, particularly those with more liberal political views, found themselves defending the importance of protecting the elderly, often as part of a broader criticism of more conservative virus responses. It was a far cry from the spiteful meme calling the virus the “boomer remover,” which seemed to indicate that young people were not particularly worried about the risks the older generation faced.
Yet even as both Boomers and Gen Zers have pointed fingers at the other, and the politics of age and coronavirus have evolved, the irony is that both generations may in fact have been a bit negligent. One study found that in March, Boomers and Gen Z were the two age groups exhibiting the least concern about catching the virus, while the Millenials and Gen X in between were being more responsible. A think-piece argued on behalf of Gen X that, “As the generation raised in the age of stranger danger and Just Say No, our inherent risk aversion is finally being recognized as a great strength and asset to the survival of the species.” While preexisting intergenerational tensions may have predisposed us to certain patterns of finger-pointing, the reality may be that both the oldest and youngest age groups have been unusually brazen. Perhaps they have more in common than they think.
Politics aside, what the data shows is that older people are most at risk when it comes to covid-19. The risks they choose to take or not take are up to them, even though their loved ones may naturally want to weigh in. On some level, it will be up to each individual family and community to navigate the tricky territory of determining which precautions different people are willing to take.
However, while the intergenerational tensions at the root of “Ok, Boomer” may not disappear any time soon, the hope is that the coronavirus pandemic serves to temper rather than worsen them. As people increasingly have to step in to care for their aging parents, families organize car parades to celebrate grandparents’ birthdays from a distance, and Gen Z college graduates move back home to quarantine with their parents indefinitely, many of whom are Boomers, this moment has created new opportunities for intergenerational harmony even as it has put new strains on it. As we reckon with uncertainty, mortality, and isolation, we will come away with fresh perspectives on the tensions that have been driving our old and young apart, and hopefully a renewed impulse to resolve them.
Eve Driver is a freelance feature contributor and a graduate of Harvard University. She writes on a variety of topics including aging, climate change, and political polarization. Her work has appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Harvard Political Review.