Ok, Boomer

The curious phenomenon of the generation war. Justice, ageism or just a joke?

For most of us the phrase came to light as a quip by MP Chlöe Swarbrick in the New Zealand Parliament (November 2019), a response to a fellow ‘boomer’ MP’s disbelief that she would only be 57 in 2050. While this thrust the phrase into the mainstream its origins can be traced one year previous as response to accusations by an older man on the internet that ‘millennials’ (1981 – 1997) had ‘peter pan syndrome’ in which they refused to grow up and accept the responsibilities of adulthood.

There are three different takes on the meaning of the phrase. The first is that it represents a justified attack on the apathy and arrogance of older generations. The argument would go that despite older generations being responsible for much of the greenhouse emissions and government policies that permitted them, they refuse to take action on the issue out of active ignorance, or an apathy since they’ll be dead soon anyway, or an insidious arrogance that they can’t be told what to do by young people or ‘fancy pants scientists with degrees’ because obviously they built the darn country right?

It’s this response to claims they are responsible that’s peddled by media personalities like Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson. They claim they and their generation deserve respect because of their achievements (telephone, internet etc.). The problem is that they try to claim collective respect over the achievements of a generational few while rejecting collective responsibility over the actions of an entire generation.

It should be the same principle as nationalism, if you want to claim events you personally did not action you need to claim them all, feel proud for British industrialisation and feel ashamed of colonial atrocities, or don’t do either and take the individualist approach, consistency is key. The older generations need to take responsibility for the emissions they collectively produced and refuse to act on, way before they can start claiming respect for achievements of individuals their age.

A second claim made about the phrase is that it represents an ageist attack. This argues it disproportionally blames older generations for emissions younger generations also produce, even though we have a better knowledge of the impacts. It could also be argued it dismisses the views of older people because of a presumed ignorance and patronisation. This smacks of prejudice if it were true, it certainly holds some weight that we use older generations as a scapegoat for our own responsibility; they do however hold a greater political ability to make effective change.

No matter how many bottles we recycle and buses we take the genuine structural changes have to be made by parliaments and voters, in which older generations dominate. The UK parliament for example has an average age of 50 and older voters are the most likely to cast a ballot in elections. Clearly younger generations need to accept more responsibility and turn up to elections before we claim the moral high ground. It could also be said we unfairly blame Boomers as representing all older generations despite those 40 – 60 (Generation X) being many of those actually in power and creating global emissions, the over sixties seem to be taking all their flack because most are unaware of how the generations are separated.

A crux of this generational war seems to be the burden of responsibility over the current environmental crises. According to one analysis by demographic researchers at MPIDR, the CO2 emissions per capita were about 50% higher for those 50 – 60 than they were for those at 20 years old. The simple truths are that older generations eat more meat, drive more (using larger, less efficient cars) heat larger homes and fly more. But perhaps this is more an issue of money than age? Obviously the older you get you become wealthier on average. As the younger generations get older and richer will we keep our principles or does our income speak for us all eventually?

The final claim, and possibly the most likely, is that the phrase represents a semi-political joke, so in Swarbrick’s case she used it to put down a rude interjection and its origins come from responding to accusations against younger people that were so absurd they represented a joke, a joke for a joke. What can be said for certain is that all claims are true in some cases, some use it as a joke, some use it fairly to attack older people’s apathy and ignorance and some use it unfairly to blame and dismiss all over 60s for the actions of every generation.

– Blair Cunningham


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