We are about to enter a new year. Amid all the political, social, economic and climate changes, we may also be marking the beginning of the end of a very special era in modern history. Baby boomers are about to ride off into the sunset, or possibly pushed along the way by an inter-generational war. In an exasperated retort to what they think is the boomers’ increasing irrelevance, millennials have created a new catchphrase. “OK Boomer” is the phrase of 2019. It’s short form for: “OK, whatever you say, uncle, you are history, we are the future and have to pick up the pieces of your condescension, arrogance, inaction and short sightedness”.
Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1965) are the products of the biggest population boom in human history, hence their name. After the Second World War, as peace reigned following the upheaval, it was as if everyone was in a hurry to procreate, to make up for lost time. In the US alone, 76 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964, a significant bulge in the population. And these boomers reaped the rewards of a world-wide reconstruction effort in an era of peace underpinned by the emergence of a relatively benign superpower. The impact could be felt around the world.
Apart from the economic surge, which saw even defeated Axis powers like Japan and Germany recover spectacularly, the boomers’ cultural influence was even more impressive. We may never again see such a burst of talents (broadly speaking, since some of the personalities mentioned are strictly outside the definition but only by a few years). In music, there were the giants like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Orbison. Film makers from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese and actors such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Ian McKellan are or were essentially boomers. Sports icons from Muhamad Ali to Billie Jean King wielded power because of their sporting excellence as well as their views on issues.
For all their impact for good, the boomers are now being accused of leaving behind a messed up world for the millennials to grapple with. In the US, the worries are, according to a TIME commentary, college debts, “a decrepit financial infrastructure and, far worse, a rapidly heating planet”. In Singapore, I would say our young may be facing a multiple-whammy future of stagnant (perhaps shrinking) and unsteady income, increasingly expensive housing and rising, hopefully not runaway, living costs.
So the last thing millennials (those born roughly between 1980 and 1996) and, for that matter, Gen Z (born from mid-1990s to early 2000s) want are lectures from their parents or grandparents. They are tired of boomers whacking them for “killing” once-stable industries like cereal and “eating avocados” (a sarcastic diss at millennials’ allegedly hoity-toity and unrealistic tastes). Vox.com comments: “Millennials say boomers are ‘out of touch’. (They) have ‘mortgaged the future’ in exchange for hoarding wealth while also voting to end necessary social programmes. (But boomers complain that) millennials would rather gripe about student debt than buckle down, work hard, and get a job.”
The battle of the generations has now been captured by the two words: OK Boomer. The phrase has been around for some time. But in October, TikTok user @rankel.stank used peter kuli’s remix in her TikTok, uploading it as “OK BOOMER – rankel.stank”. This was from a teenager fed up with what appeared to be a boomer yakking away about the folly of youthful idealism. It went viral. Politically, it grew wings. First, in the same month of October, an article in The New York Times discussed the phenomenon of fashion merchandise using the phrase. Then about the same time, Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old New Zealand politician, picked it up as “a sly diss when an older colleague cut into her Parliament speech on climate change”.
Nothing new? Just another old versus young tussle? No, this time, the stakes are higher.
Globalisation has widened the rich-poor gap to an unacceptable level. The rich are accumulating the means (wealth) to exploit the divide to ensure that their own kind are untouched by whatever else is happening outside their cocoon. And they will develop a blind eye to the consequences of group self-denial – that climate change is real. They prefer continuing to clear forests, pollute the air, deplete the oceans and harm the ozone layer. They will not be stopped by any bleeding heart activists who happened to be at the wrong end of the stick.
In other words, so sorry, not our problem . They are the ones who appear to be self-entitled and not the millennials who are merely fighting for their minimal future and who, ironically, the boomers are accusing of milking the system dry.
In the Singapore context, the young probably feel the older generations have let them down badly. The majority have long lost hope of attaining all the traditional four Cs by 40 – credit card, car, condo and country club. Only the credit card has been within reach and that is simply a couple of steps away from long-term indebtedness, for consumption and not investment. And when they see aliens (or naturalised ones who have not done a minute of national service) in their midst flitting around in cars, yelling at security guards or looking down on them and their HDB lifestyle, or get irritated by the F1 circus catering to the rich and famous, will they say, “OK, PAP”?.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.Follow us on Social Media
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