American G.I.s came home from World War II to be greeted by a strong post-war economy, the first white picket fences of suburbia, and — well — their wives. In the fertility-fest that followed, from the mid-1940s to mid-1960s, almost 80 million new Americans would join the world.
It’s easy to disparage the Baby Boomers today as aging hippie Social Security sponges who have left their descendants melting glaciers and mountains of debt. But they were also the generation that mainstreamed Civil Rights, feminism and the modern principle (however imperfectly applied) that bigotry in all its forms is fundamentally un-American. Every previous generation tolerated intolerance in ways that, today, most Americans would find unthinkable. Whatever the boomers have taken, they gave America that.
The boomers have long been the largest living generation in the U.S. But they’re now being dethroned by the millennials — Americans born from 1981 through 1996. Millennials’ numbers are projected to top 73 million this year with a boost from immigration, while the boomers drop to 72 million as members die off.
As they cross paths, the millennials are greeting their grandparents with: “Ok, boomer.”
If you’ve seen the phrase in context on social media, you know it isn’t a friendly hello.
Millennials (and their younger Gen Z siblings) use the phrase, as one online explainer puts it, to “mock Baby Boomers and those who are perceived as old-fashioned and being out-of-touch.” The New York Times calls it “the digital equivalent of an eye roll.”
It was originally aimed at older folks’ lack of technological acumen: “OK Boomer, go back to figuring out how your computing device works,” to cite one Twitter exchange. But it has expanded to an indictment of how the old have compromised the future of the young on topics like college debt and climate change.
One young Australian lawmaker, giving an impassioned speech about global warming, recently shut down an older heckler with an “OK boomer” tossed off so efficiently that she barely broke from her script. It went viral. Some boomers are pushing back. One conservative radio host has, ridiculously, declared the phrase “the n-word of ageism.”
It’s a rift between two generations that, historically, have much in common. The boomers opposed the Vietnam War, embraced racial equality and demanded a lower voting age. The millennials oppose environmental destruction, embrace marriage equality, and have seen their voting rights trampled by a national political party.
And both have serious candidates in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Which is likely to only deepen the rift.
In addition to being the first openly gay serious presidential candidate, Buttigieg is the first millennial. And (OK, boomers, I’m just going to say this) that alone might be reason enough to stop treating him like a mere curiosity.
It’s not that I don’t respect the wisdom of age; the older I get, the more I respect it. But if removing President Donald Trump next year is an existential imperative for the Democratic Party (and the nation, and the world), why would you nominate someone with one of the same major problems?
Trump is 73, which, were he to win reelection, would make him older than Ronald Reagan in his second term — a term we now know may have been affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Trump would be unfit for office at any age, but his age is a legitimate issue. Yet it’s one that three of the four leading Democrats can’t realistically raise.
Buttigieg’s deficits are real, but navigable. Yes, anti-gay bigotry is still a factor in U.S. politics, but anyone who refuses to vote for an openly gay candidate probably isn’t going to vote Democratic no matter who the nominee is. Yes, being mayor of a smallish city feels like a thin resume — but thinner than an incumbent whose pre-presidential resume consisted entirely of being a crooked, bankrupt businessman?
As for the knock that Buttigieg is simply too young: How are things going with that 73-year-old?
If it’s not Mayor Pete this time, it will be another millennial in the near future. They are soon going to be in charge, and for a long time, just by virtue of their numbers.
And they should be in charge, by virtue of their values. All these arguments that feel so epic today — about immigration and gay rights and voting rights and tax fairness and climate change and access to health care and education and the ethnic kaleidoscope that America is becoming — are arguments that have, in reality, already been settled, by biology.
Not to put it too harshly, but those on the wrong side of these issues are going to die off first. Checkmate, boomer.