Moral panic about youth, and youth’s resentment of that panic, often emerges in times of rapid change, like we’re experiencing today. Ironically, today’s youths inherited a hyper-focus on generations from the 1960s, when the very boomer targets of today’s meme were themselves the younger generation under attack. But framing such conflicts in generational terms can be dangerous. Then, as now, rallying around generational identity created solidarity — but it also distracted from more fruitful conversations. In the 1960s, the real divides were about power — who had it and who did not — not about young vs. old. Getting bogged down in generation clashes ensured these problems went unresolved — and we run that risk again today if we distill our divisions into a generation gap.
America in the 1960s was rife with change: civil rights, the antiwar movement, women’s and gay liberation, the counterculture. Although people of all ages took part in the tidal wave of social change that swept America that decade, young activists got the bulk of the attention, and many of them reveled in this. Not all who were classified as youths in the 1960s fall under today’s definition of baby boomer — many 1960s leaders were born in the early 1940s, not the traditionally defined baby-boom era of 1946-1964. But lines between generations are always fuzzy, and the 1960s foot soldiers born after 1946 became most associated with the movement. Youths often led opposition to the war in Vietnam and arguments for racial and gender equality. They pushed social conventions about dress, decorum, sex and drug use. They went on strike on college campuses. Growing up in the postwar economic boom, they were free to question materialism and consumption.
Young radicals believed they were ushering in a new America, and those over 30 were hopelessly out of touch and not to be trusted. Today’s youths have “OK, boomer.” The youths of the 1960s had a different taunt: Mr. Jones, derived from the patron saint of 1960s youths, Bob Dylan, who sang, “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
Yet, generational slogans were more complicated than memory has it. Even the line “don’t trust anyone over 30,” first uttered during the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, wasn’t originally meant as a barb at older people. Tired of reporters insinuating that the student movement was secretly directed by communists, Jack Weinberg made up the line to deflect red-baiting. By saying students didn’t trust anyone over 30, he meant there were no communist puppet masters pulling the strings.
The slogan caught on, inspiring generational solidarity but also a bit of angst. How would the movement continue as activists turned 30? What coalitions really would force change? Young radicals asked these questions and offered various solutions. Some approaches, like the idea of creating adult-oriented Movement for a Democratic Society chapters that could accompany the well-known radical youth organization Students for a Democratic Society, never really took off. Other ideas, like working for change from within one’s profession, or starting alternative schools, food co-ops, free clinics and other community programs that could appeal to a range of age groups, took hold and transformed parts of America, at least at the local level.
Furthermore, not all young people in the 1960s spoke of their activism in generational terms. Young women were more cautious about casting aspersions on the old, not wanting to participate in sexist devaluation of older women. Young people of color, too, were far less likely to think that youths, alone, could bring revolutionary change.
Yet, the narrative become one of deep generational divides, in part because the media was eager to highlight generational tensions. Commentators assured America that protest was an adolescent fad and conflict between generations natural. Things would settle down soon. After all, observers chuckled, the kids would grow up one day.
This focus allowed people in power to dodge the fact that non-youths also had criticisms of American society at home and questioned American power abroad. President Richard Nixon’s silent majority speech framed America as a place of cultural and political consensus, where only a minority of rabble-rousers clamored for change. But the fault lines were deeper than this framing suggested.
Insurgent youths, too, lost sight of the bigger picture. Out of the spotlight, members of the same baby boom generation helped shape the New Right, a different kind of ‘60s movement. Coming to power in the 1980s, the New Right ushered in an era of deregulation and defunding of the postwar institutions that had broadened social mobility leading up to the 1960s. “OK, boomer” flattens out the differences within the generation — as did calling on “youth revolution” in the 1960s. The myth that young radicals grew up into social and economic conservatives, however inaccurate, is at work in the OK, boomer meme.
But the charge that boomers are responsible for everything that ails us — from stingy social policies to climate change denial — has problems that go beyond flattening out the differences among baby boomers. It also misnames the target of youth frustration today.
The divides roiling society are more about power than age. In the 1960s, for many radicals, talking about age was just a means to ask broader questions about who had power and who did not. Young people were the ones being sent to Vietnam by their elders in power; young people questioning cultural conventions faced crackdowns by parents, schools or police. America was run by the powerful, deaf to the voices of the powerless. Age was just part of a wider problem.
But in highlighting age, broader conversations about power got lost. Ultimately, calling for youth revolution only helped feed depoliticized narratives about a generation gap.
We run that risk again today — something that has already garnered attention. As soon as “OK, boomer” hit the mainstream, productive conversations emerged about the dangers of focusing too much on generational divides. And, as some embracing the meme have noted, “boomer” isn’t always meant literally. It can mean anyone resisting change. We now use boomer two ways: as a term for someone born in a certain era, but increasingly as a stand-in for power, selfishness or comfortable cluelessness — traits found in people of all ages.
And it’s this usage — not simply one tied to age — that must guide our conversations. It may be cathartic to roll one’s eyes and utter “OK, boomer” over everything from telephone calls to retirement accounts, but it’s likely to end in the same place: distracting us from deeper conversations about what really divides us and the coalitions that might truly bring change. To paraphrase another ‘60s anthem, let’s hope that this time we won’t get fooled again.