The young people now in high school, college and just spilling out into the workplace, part of Generation Z, are frustrated, angry and scared. In 2019, their exasperation broke out in a firestorm of just two words: “OK Boomer.” The meme came about as part of a viral TikTok video –an irritated teenager writes the phrase on a piece of notebook paper in response to a geezer who’s gassing on about the folly of youthful idealism–that gave voice to millions of young people who look forward to emerging from college saddled with debt, only to inherit a decrepit financial infrastructure and, far worse, a rapidly heating planet.
The phrase isn’t just a teenage fad: Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old New Zealand politician, used it as a sly dis when an older colleague cut into her Parliament speech on climate change. (When she was told that he was actually a member of Generation X, she responded that “boomer is a state of mind.”) And the sentiment may be a divisive force in the U.S. presidential election; it percolated beneath the surface of every one of this year’s Democratic debates. The field of candidates stretches from the young (Pete Buttigieg, 37) to the rather old (Joe Biden, 77, and Bernie Sanders, 78), with each end of the spectrum expressing skepticism of the other. Is the country more in need of youthful energy or the wisdom of experience? “OK Boomer” is shorthand for all that tension.
Gen Z-ers and millennials who hold the boomers responsible for milking the system dry are understandably resentful. Yet many in the older crowd have volubly indicated their hurt feelings, asserting that the meme represents a gross generalization: plenty of them do care about the environment, and still have the old ecology-symbol-emblazoned jean jackets to prove it. Many have been politically engaged for decades. Maybe this is the time to remind everybody of a much older catchphrase, a meme of its day. The words “Don’t trust anyone over 30” originated in the mid-1960s with Jack Weinberg, an environmental activist and a leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, a group of young radicals who fought for the kind of change that many in today’s younger generations also desire. It’s young people’s right to want to change the world, and to find their own words, but it’s the action behind the words that counts. OK, Gen Z. Show us what you’ve got.
This appears in the December 02, 2019 issue of TIME.