Why are Gen Z and millennials calling out boomers on TikTok? 'OK, boomer,' explained

Joshua Bote, USA TODAY
Why are Gen Z and millennials calling out boomers on TikTok? 'OK, boomer,' explained

Resentment toward baby boomers online reached a fever pitch with a simple, biting catchphrase used by Generation Z and millennials: "OK, boomer."

The "OK, boomer" phenomenon started with a screed against Generation Z and millennials who have "Peter Pan syndrome," or the inability to grow up.

"They think that the utopian ideals that they have in their youth are somehow going to translate into adulthood," says an unidentified man in a baseball cap and a polo shirt, repeating talking points made by commentators and critics about "infantile" generations that were "hobbled" by social media and "trophies for participating."

Thousands of teens and 20-somethings on TikTok have subverted the rant with the phrase "OK, boomer," explaining the reasons why their generation has ultimately dismissed the concerns of young people, dressing up in clown make-up, or simply, writing "OK, boomer" in a multitude of creative ways.

Victoria Slatton, 28, a D.C. lawyer who posted an "OK, boomer" TikTok, refers to the wave of these videos as "a sophisticated, mass retaliation" by Gen Z against the generations past that have shaped politics, economics and the environment so strongly. 

"It's not generational warfare; it's real criticism," Slatton said. "Gen Z has made laughing at it an art."

It's a retort that's not intended to stereotype baby boomers, Slatton said. Instead, it's a call to get boomers to take action on pressing world issues and to stop generalizing younger generations as "snowflakes" and "Peter Pans." It's also pretty funny.

Why are Gen Z and millennials calling out boomers?

Between the punishing rise of student loan debt and financial instability, even a decade after the 2008 recession, younger generations are, on the whole, wary of advice from baby boomers.

"Baby boomers grew up in a particular moment in the United States with a lot of moral clarity and economic confidence and certainty that has unraveled for following generations," Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor of communication and digital culture at University of Pennsylvania, who identifies as a Gen X'er, told USA TODAY.

The frustrations that young people have toward boomers are informed by real-world affairs. Lingel said her students are concerned about environmental disasters, social equity and the inaction of older generations to address these pressing issues.

"There's this generational scapegoating that conveys a sense of moral superiority," Lingel said. "When I teach young people, they're pretty politically conscious."

Even though reports have found that millennial workers are fundamentally the same as other employees, the perception by baby boomers remains that they're quick to leave their jobs, technologically obsessed and overconfident at work.

"With the amount of memes about entitled millennials and the attitudes I've seen and the jokes (boomers) have made, they don't have any room to get mad or even pretend-mad," Slatton said. "That has real consequences in real life and in the workplace." 

"OK, boomer" has history

The seeds of resentment toward Baby Boomers have festered in the internet for years, long before TikTok, per meme encyclopedia Know Your Meme.

Lingel notes that a predecessor to this is the meme of alarmist news stories that blame millennials for "killing everything" from diamonds to silverware

An early 2010s meme known as "Old Economy Steve" shows a photo of a man with a '70s haircut and a shirt with an unbuttoned collar. It lampoons the ways in which Boomers benefited from economic privileges that were not available to generations after.

A common quip on Twitter that predates "OK, boomer" is "silence, boomer" — an image often used as a reply for when someone has tweeted something perceived to be out-of-touch. 

There's also a Facebook group called "A group where we all pretend to be boomers" founded in May by two Gen Z'ers, dedicated to people mimicking the behavior of baby boomers online. The group's 300,000 members post non sequiturs, comment on each others' out-of-date memes and behave in a way befitting past generations. 

Even though generations prior might have honed the online digs at Baby Boomers, "OK, boomer" crystallized the frustration in simply two words.

"It picked up steam on a platform where there's a lot of generational sameness," Lingel said. "It's peaking in this particular moment ... because it's tapping into a real narrative about a generational divide."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why are Gen Z, millennials using 'OK boomer' to call out baby boomers?