If you use social media, you’ve probably by now seen one of the most popular memes of the year, “OK boomer." The saying has become a popular response whenever someone of baby boomer age (approximately 55-75 years old) says something that younger people deem stupid or incorrect, in order to poke fun at them.
The original meme started with internet users including screenshots of news stories and tweets pointing out racism, sexism and homophobia. But it evolved into an accepted form of public ageism. What was once a shortcut meant to criticize outdated views by people in the public eye — usually straight, white celebrities and people in government — is now used to belittle the older generation, lumping them all together as technologically illiterate, uneducated bigots, which isn’t the case at all.
We should consider a different approach.
A lot of older people aren't being willfully ignorant when they can’t use newer phones or don’t know about current issues — they just aren't as savvy or connected to the news as young people. Many still don't have the internet at their fingertips to receive breaking news straight to their phones or a gang of Twitter friends to give them new insights like the younger generations have. And of those who do, many have to learn how to identify credible news sources.
Instead of scorning and using the older people in our lives’ unintentional ignorance for Twitter retweets, millennials and Generation Xers should be spending at least a small amount of time helping our parents and grandparents understand what is going on in the world. When someone older asks a genuine question or expresses confusion, we shouldn’t scoff — instead we should sit down with them and just explain why they should care about something and how they can help.
It used to be the other way around: the inquisitive youth seeking out the sage knowledge of those who got a head start in life before us. Now, with the rate at which technology moves, the newer generations hold the keys to boundless knowledge. We should show our senior citizens the same patience they had when they toilet trained us. Well, not all. There were also the ones who believed that spanking was an efficient educational tool and now, we know better.
A few weeks ago I was spending the afternoon at my mom’s house. She's 50, so not quite boomer age, but a big technophobe and not very knowledgeable on social issues. She’s recently become a grandmother for the second time and looks after my two nieces most days while my sister and her husband work. In her spare room she had over 160 diapers that were too small for my baby niece and 20 bottles she couldn't use (my niece has acid reflux and needs to use special bottles) that she was just going to throw away. She was flabbergasted when I informed her that I could take them to my local food bank or women's refuge where they were desperately needed.
When I relayed this conversation to my millennial friends they were disgusted and outraged at my mother, calling her wasteful. Some even insinuated that she was a bad person for wanting to throw it all out. I had to explain to them that this wasn’t the case, my mom simply didn’t know the food bank took things other than food — that is their name, after all. She wasn’t acting selfishly, she simply didn’t know she had other options.
Once I had explained this all to her, she was overjoyed that she could help those less fortunate. She herself was a single mother for a chunk of my childhood, having to feed and clothe two infant children on a low income. Instead of expressing disgust at her for wanting to throw away things that were taking up space, all I had to do was explain to her a better way to dispose of unwanted items and assist her by contacting my local food bank and taking the bags to them.
By taking the time to explain modern points of view to those of boomer ages, millennials and Gen X kids would not only be educating them, but showing them respect. It’s easy to post a screenshot mocking someone online, but it takes a lot more strength and determination to try and get them to see things from your point of view.
As a generation, we’re known for being more understanding and empathetic, so we should project those values when talking to our elders about current issues. Lead with kindness, and they’ll be more inclined to follow.
"Just be patient and try some empathy ... We grew up without instant access to all answers and things went a bit slower for us," says Allison Parker Schwartz, 58, from Dallas. "Many of us didn’t consider creative lifestyle paths so have to process the way many from the next generation love, work, prepare for financial independence, and obtain healthcare, education and a place to live."
Allison’s husband Jack, 56, has another way of looking at it: "The boomers likely had as much trouble relating to their prior generations as you could imagine. At some point, you will need to meet them where they are if you truly want to get them to see your views."
This can also be extended to older people in order to change their language — particularly if you find that they still use terms that are now considered slurs. You have to remember that many of those terms were considered culturally accepted words at the time, and even the people they mean to describe sometimes used them themselves. Introduce them to the newer, more appropriate words — for instance, if they mention "a transsexual," say, "It's transgender mom." Don’t be afraid to gently tell them that their choice of words is now offensive. For example, "We don’t stay 'spastic' anymore, Grandpa, please can you just say disabled?"
Yes, it's hard to teach an old dogs new tricks, but it's better than mocking the dogs all over the internet because they don't know how to use GPS. They're from the times of printed maps.
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Unfortunately. there are many still intent on using offensive words. And while we can accept why ideas are outdated, it doesn't make them right. We can and should still call out racism, sexism, homophobia and trans phobia, but we should do it without engaging in bullying. The phrase "OK boomer" is dismissive at best, and at worst, veiled ageism disguised as activism.
If we mean to enact social justice tactics on an entire generation of conservative voters who stomp on the rights of others, we should better start picking our battles, internet.
You may get some pushback when trying to educate others, especially when it's unsolicited. Boomers may see your lecturing as patronizing. When I first mentioned this idea online, I was met with many older people who had taken offense to me claiming that boomers needed this help, and of course not all do.
But by leading with love and respect for our elders, they could still grow to see the world through our eyes.