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Maybe not OK boomer

When the American Dialect Society was picking its 2019 word of the year, I selected “OK boomer” as the most likely to succeed word of 2019. But now I’m having some second thoughts.

Defined as “a retort to someone older expressing out-of-touch or condescending views,” OK boomer seems to capture an existing zeitgeist: the tension between the baby boomers, the 20% of the American public born between 1946 and 1964, and generation Z, those born between 1996 and 2010, and adulting right about now.

The boomers grew up in a time of relative prosperity, the adulation of youth culture, and expanded access to low-cost college. Generation Z — don’t call them zoomers — are facing limited job prospects, rising costs and endless college debt. My parents’ Depression-era generation were penny pinchers and hoarders, frightened of being broke again. My generation could go to college for the price of a cheap car. Not any more: my Generation Z students are goal-oriented, technological savvy, and woke, but many are staring downward mobility in the face.

You may be thinking, “OK boomer, what’s your point?”

The point is that the sentiment behind OK boomer was an opportunity to explore this intergenerational social conflict. It was an opportunity to start a conversation between a post-war, post-depression generation that is viewed as mired in entitlements and a generation that has always known a tenuous economy and homeland insecurity and many of whose members see themselves staring into the abyss.

The sentiment behind OK boomer — that today’s youth do not share the privileges of the past and that boomers are often unaware of their struggles — might have started a conversation across the generations, a conversation that might lead them to find they have more in common than they think.

Some boomers took offense. The phrase raised the hackles of some who considered it ageism. Some suggested it was generational hate speech, and a radio commentator even compared it to the n-word.

Others treat OK boomer as a casual put down of privileged pontificators, and it has quickly become a general catch-phrase. My 20-something students, who are often more attuned to changes in language than I am, report that their younger siblings are using OK boomer to shut them down when they pontificate.

And some of my 20-somethings say they have used it, semi-ironically, to their younger siblings. As the irony fades away, OK boomer may become a bleached out putdown — the equivalent of “duh” or “bite me.” The intergenerational sting is slipping away.

Since being popularized on the social media platform TIKTOK, OK boomer is being commodified on clothing and memes. FOX television has even registered the phrase as a game show concept. You can just imagine.

Language changes, right before our eyes. What seems destined for success one day is old news the next. By the time linguists are voting on the word of the year for 2020, OK boomer may have gone the way of such other word of the year winners as chad (2000), metrosexual (2003), to pluto (2006), and occupy (2011).

Edwin Battistella lives in Ashland.

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