By Nicolette Chua, Associate Commentary Editor
The phrases “Strawberry generation” or “Snowflake syndrome” have long been older generations’ charges against the youths of today.
Enter its serious contender: “OK boomer”.
Popularised on social media platform TikTok in November 2019, the term was coined in response to an unidentified man who disparaged the millennials and Generation Z for having “Peter Pan syndrome” and for not wanting to “grow up”.
Millennials and Generation Z, comprising today's teenagers and 20-somethings, have since taken to social media to express their ire for being labelled as such — adopting the refrain “OK boomer” as a sarcastic rejoinder to their older counterparts.
The term makes specific reference to “baby boomers” born between 1946 and 1964, but it has also been used more generally to describe middle-aged to elderly people who embody stock characteristics of this demographic cohort.
While generational comparisons have existed since time immemorial, these popular catchphrases reflect the widening rift between the old and the young. As a result of paradigm shifts in cultural contexts, values, and technological advancements, both generations have found themselves understanding each other less.
As a Channel NewsAsia article astutely observes, Singaporean Millennials’ and Gen Zs’ worries stem from bread-and-butter issues like job insecurity and stagnating wages, to socio-political issues such as climate change, youth political participation, and the institutions of family and marriage.
Baby boomers, however, were beneficiaries of economic mobility arising from post-World War 2 reconstruction efforts. Much to the frustration of their younger counterparts, they are quick to dismiss the present generation’s individualism and idealism, perceiving these traits as pickiness and an inability to endure hardship.
It is no wonder that “OK boomer” has since become the rallying cry of Millennials and Gen Zs against what is deemed as the older generation’s largely unwarranted prejudices towards them.
“OK boomer”: Singapore Edition
While the popular catchphrase highlighting this generational struggle first made its rounds in the United States, it has long existed in Singapore. COVID-19 has since exacerbated the “OK boomer” phenomenon, whereby these rejoinders were once again employed to characterise the social proclivities of the older generation.
For instance, when Singapore raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) risk assessment level from Yellow to Orange on February 7, much of the panic buying at supermarkets that ensued was attributed to baby boomers and older generation.
Not long after, internet memes about baby boomers’ “kancheong” (impatient, restless) attitudes went viral on social media platforms. (see Figure 1) Even up till April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s COVID-19 televised national addresses have become associated with an urgency to stock up on essential supplies.
Moreover, the older generation has also been associated as purveyors of unverified and outrightly fake news (Figure 2). At the height of the public health crisis, misinformation and rumours on COVID-19-related news were spread over social media and chat platforms (Figures 2 and 3). For example, WhatsApp messages claiming that COVID-19 can be prevented by drinking or gargling warm water mixed with salt or vinegar have been thoroughly debunked by the Singapore Ministry of Health.
The Government has frequently stepped up to clarify such misinformation, even resorting to issuing a series of correction directions under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
Such examples of internet memes serve visual social commentary, representing the younger generation’s collective exasperation and even contempt for some boomers’ socially irresponsible, aberrant behaviour. COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated these stereotypes.
“OK boomer”… and then what?
Internet memes about boomers’ behaviour are neither an accidental phenomenon, nor are they without implications. In an earlier article by The Convergence’s guest writer, Muhammad Quraishi, he posited that “internet memes are seen as vehicles for transmission of ideas through semiotic representations”. They interrogate societal undercurrents in ways that mainstream media does not.
Even though memes contain humorous elements, these also serve as “potential conduits for ideological persuasion”. As such, even a seemingly harmless, tongue-in-cheek phrase can be a veneer of deep-seated disdain for older individuals.
While such stereotypes about boomers are not entirely unfounded, its perpetuation (especially through internet memes) risks typifying this demographic cohort as a monolith. It renders youths oblivious to the historical and cultural contexts that their predecessors were raised in, as well as less empathetic to their current circumstances and anxieties.
More insidiously, Millennials and Gen Zs may end up projecting the very prejudice that some older individuals have been known to levy on the younger generation.
In fact, it is perhaps worth re-considering what the phrase “OK boomer” entails — it is a statement of exasperation and dismissiveness, yet it offers no solutions.
Perhaps there is more we can do to bridge this generational divide — by trying to empathise and understand their perspectives of our Merdeka and Pioneer Generations.
Offer help and harmonious discourse, not hate
In one South China Morning Post article, its writer proffered that boomers “haven’t gone wild, they just need time to process.” Given how fast the turn of events was when COVID-19 first reached Singapore’s shores, there is much truth to this statement.
For one, the sudden change in the lives upon the announcement of social distancing measures has made life more disorientating, especially for the older generation. Such measures have forcibly reduced their physical activity and social interaction, rendering them isolated and anxious. This may also explain why several older individuals have been recalcitrant; stubbornly insisting on hanging out in public places despite calls by the authorities to do otherwise.
Moreover, many from the Merdeka and Pioneer generations are distrustful of technology or at best, have limited proficiency. Suffice to say, a lack of digital literacy, coupled by their present anxieties, may have caused them to spread or irrationally act on misinformation. Left to their own devices (literally), some have readily jumped to conclusions or sprung to action in socially inconsiderate ways.
These instances from COVID-19 alone beckon us to consider how we can engage in a more fruitful discourse between different generations beyond this crisis. We can be the first ones to engage in more tangible action to understand and educate the boomers in our lives better.
A more fruitful way forward
Some ways of doing so include teaching them how to order groceries online, checking in on them over a call or visit, and advising seniors to avoid crowded places and maintain good personal hygiene. Beyond COVID-19, we can also gently explain and educate our elders on discerning authoritative and accurate news sources from hearsay. After all, a little more empathy goes a long way.
Likewise, the onus is also on the older generation to re-evaluate their entrenched mindsets and attitudes. Mr. Han Fook Kwang, former editor of The Straits Times observes, “Baby boomers are [often] seen as the problem, too set in their ways and unwilling to give up their often wasteful lifestyle. Or too selfish because the consequences will not be theirs to suffer but their children's and grandchildren's.”
As such, “Every baby boomer should ask what this pandemic means to him or her, individually and collectively, and what he or she should do about it”, he thoughtfully opines. Boomers need not look any further than to seek inspiration from today’s youth, who regularly champion various causes through social activism and have kickstarted a host of local, ground-up initiatives.
While generational differences always have, and will continue to persist, an “OK boomer” retort silences any hopes of a productive, meaningful conversation altogether.
And for all we know, we may very well end up becoming the stereotypical boomers of the future.
Nicolette Chua is a final-year Political Science student and an Associate Commentary Editor for The Convergence. She firmly believes in the power of youths' voices in steering national conversations on social issues, and seeks to marry this conviction with her love for writing and current affairs. In her free time, Nicolette can be found with a cup of Teh C in hand while keeping herself updated on dank memes.