Older workers and retirees are struggling to survive. They need solidarity not rich kids shouting OK Boomer at them
You might not have noticed, but apparently youre living through something of a revolution. In a New York Times article last week, Taylor Lorenz documents the OK Boomer meme thats become a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids and an endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just dont get it. Now its war, the Times asserts: Gen Z has finally snapped over climate change and financial inequality.
The meme is mostly used by young people on social media to respond to perceived condescension from older users but its been touted as a way to understand why job and life prospects are constrained for so many young people. Its not capitalists, its not the politicians who serve them its boomers, or everyone born in the two decades after the second world war.
Like much of online culture, OK Boomer tells us something about the cultural dominance of upper-middle-class youth. These young people are surrounded by baby boomers whove hoarded all the wealth and polluted the planet in the process. They havent had to witness or deal with the ramifications of old age and precarity for millions of working people in that generational cohort. Instead they get to revel without self-reflection in oedipal angst about their elders many of whom were kind enough to pass them their ill-gotten privileges.
Workers of all ages, after all, barely earn enough to survive, much less save for retirement. A 2018 PBS Newshour report notes that half of Americans approaching age 65 have less than $25,000 in savings. One in four dont even have $1,000.
Far from sitting atop riches, many of them never saw their household wealth recover after the Great Recession. They were victims of corporate raiders, neoliberal deregulation and predatory loans and the situation is even more dire for those of them who are black and brown.
With this in mind, lets retranslate the meme Lorenz is championing.
Boomer: I cant afford to live on social security. My promised pension disappeared. I might need to get out of retirement and start working part time again. I worry about the future.
Its true, of course, that young people will be entering into a potentially even more perilous future than their elders. Well be the ones who will have to live through the worst of the climate catastrophe and spend the bulk of our years working jobs that arent unionized, provide few benefits and promise little stability.
Past generations entered a relatively more favorable labor market, one won by decades of class struggle and organization. They also saw the passage of important social reforms. And thank God they did. Imagine how many more older workers would be destitute and worse without the protections offered by Medicare and Social Security.
Rather than scoff at the relative privileges of a few, we should be trying to recreate some of the conditions that made life a bit better during the postwar years boomers were born into. That means, of course, organizing against our bosses and pressuring our political leaders to reshape the economy to work for the many, not snarking at the working people who spent years of their lives providing for us.
After all, the problem with generational analysis is that even though it claims to be rooted in economic realities, it cannot see the reality of class. There were plenty of Gen Xers and older millennials convincing boomers to refinance away the small amount of wealth they had accumulated. There were also plenty of boomers who didnt feel any generational solidarity while exploiting people their own age and amassing vast fortunes in the process.
If we have to divide ourselves, it makes sense to look for these class divisions rather than inventing common cultural characteristics across generations. But if we are to consider age, lets try to harness the wisdom that our working-class elders can impart to us: the stories about bosses betraying their promises, about political elites neglecting those with nothing to offer them, about lifetimes of hard work not being rewarded with a peaceful retirement or even the respect of those we nurtured.
Nothing is guaranteed in life it has to be earned. But for most, bootstrapping ourselves to success is an illusion. The only way we improve our lot as workers is through collective action. That means knowing who your friends are and who your enemies are.
Heres a hint: its not boomers its that investment banker you went to high school with.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality