The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He wrote the book on boomers, and he thinks the Gen Z rap against them isn’t quite OK

When Leonard Steinhorn hosted Thanksgiving at his Logan Circle apartment in November, a friend and fellow baby boomer surprised the 20-somethings in attendance with special gifts: T-shirts printed with the viral put-down “OK boomer.” Generation Z’s mocking dismissal of out-of-touch old people had ricocheted across the Internet earlier that month, and playing it up in front of Steinhorn doubled as a good-natured inside joke: The longtime American University communication professor, and author of the 2006 tome “The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy,” is perhaps the nation’s biggest boomer booster.

Teens on TikTok may resent Americans born between 1946 and 1964 for failing to act on climate change and leaving behind economic inequality — Steinhorn acknowledges this “unfinished business” — but he still believes that his age cohort is unfairly maligned. “Boomers have been the villains ever since the 1980s,” the 63-year-old Steinhorn told me when I called him for an interview, “in large part because boomers changed an America their elders didn’t want to see changed.”

Starting in the 1960s, he explains, the generation ushered in a cultural revolution that brought about historic strides in racial justice, feminism and gay rights. Boomers “turbocharged the environmental movement” with the first Earth Day in 1970 and replaced the conservative “culture of conformity” — which had prevailed in the 1950s — with the liberal “live and let live” norms of “baby boomer individualism,” norms that have persisted and proliferated to the present. Steinhorn welcomes criticism from younger generations — “We can take it,” he says gamely — but argues that “millennials and Gen Z are living those social norms boomers made possible.”

“The Greater Generation” was a conscious retort to decades of boomer bashing. “Hating boomers,” Steinhorn recalls, “had become the last acceptable prejudice. When I was writing that book, everyone was blaming boomers for every ill that was going on in society.” NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who famously lionized “the Greatest Generation” that fought World War II, had written in Newsweek that boomers “seem to have forgotten the example of their parents” who “made extraordinary sacrifices and never whined or whimpered.” First deemed too selfish to have kids, then too involved in their kids’ lives, overly relativistic in their morals, then moralizing in their political correctness, “boomers have been a piñata for cultural critics,” Steinhorn says. He wanted to publish “a corrective” to these narratives.

“The Greatest Generation deserves every bit of credit for protecting democracy when it was threatened; but Baby Boomers deserve even more credit for enriching democracy and fulfilling its promise,” he wrote in the book. “Two generations stared at the same shortcomings, inequities, and hypocrisies of American life, but it was the Baby Boom generation that chose to tackle them, to hold this country to its grand ideals, to agitate for justice when it would have been easier to remain docile and silent.”

As a millennial raised by a pair of liberal boomers, I’m instinctively sympathetic to Steinhorn’s case. I’m close to my parents, and I share their values, so it made sense when Steinhorn told me there’s much less of a cultural “generation gap” between boomers and younger cohorts than between boomers and their parents. “Whereas boomers and the prior generation had a difference in kind,” he said, “what you have now is a difference in degree.”

But then I think about my generation’s frustration. Gallup polling shows that millennials and Gen Z are significantly more concerned about global warming than boomers. And exit polls showed that most boomers ended up voting for Donald Trump in 2016. (In December, The Washington Post published a striking photo of a 65-year-old New York diner owner’s shrine to the president, complete with framed posters for the Beatles and the Who.) Indeed, as Steinhorn notes, “Trump represented something very, very 1960s and very, very baby boomer, which is to stick a thumb in the eye of the establishment.”

Yet Steinhorn doesn’t think this negates boomers’ overall progressive legacy. Liberal boomer Hillary Clinton, he reminded me, won the popular vote. And the popular vote winner in 2000? A boomer named Al Gore, whose prescience on climate change earned him the nickname “the Goracle.” At least some of the boomers are, well, OK.

Steinhorn thinks “OK boomer” identifies the wrong villains in the matter of the warming planet and worsening economic prospects. “It’s not generational — it’s political,” he told me. “There’s a political party in this country that prefers to put the interests of corporations over the interests of the environment.” The problem is caving to Wall Street, not bowing to boomers.

He isn’t cranky about “OK boomer,” though; he was as amused as anyone when his 26-year-old daughter sent him the October New York Times article announcing the meme. He knew his friend was bringing the T-shirts on Thanksgiving — including some for his children, who might wear them on an upcoming family vacation. If anything, all the eye-rolling at older generations conjures fond memories of the Mad magazines boomers read growing up — classic satires that spoofed their parents.

It’s not the only cross-generational similarity he sees, either. The Times observed that “OK boomer” is a retort to “basically any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people” — and, as Steinhorn points out, that’s a lot like the ’60s youth mantra “Don’t trust anybody over 30.”

Boomers, Steinhorn thinks, are capable of taking all this criticism in stride. “My sense is that boomers are going to be far more embracing of the implied mockery,” he says, “because ultimately we do want our kids to make a better life for themselves and complete the unfinished business of our generation.” In other words, perhaps we aren’t doomed to endless online generational warfare, and we can have peace in our timelines. As a couple of boomer icons told us many years ago, “War is over, if you want it.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of Steinhorn’s daughter. This version has been updated.

Graham Vyse is a writer in Washington.

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