Why did boomer become an insult? Because the internet is shattering industrial era politics and culture

1. The puzzle. Why did OK Boomer take off?

On Oct 29, Taylor Lorenz posted ‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations. Quote:

“Ok boomer” has become Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids. Teenagers use it to reply to cringey YouTube videos, Donald Trump tweets, and basically any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people — and the issues that matter to them.

This put “OK Boomer” over the top, causing it to trend on Google and Reddit.

image source

But why did this particular generational warfare meme take off? Generational warfare used to be boring. Just last month nobody cared much about boomer either way. Earlier this year CBS TV accidently left out Gen X on a list of generations. Nobody cared. Except for an enjoyable day of snark. So why now, ok boomer?

My tl;dr answer is internet information, fake and true, is delegitimizing our existing industrial era institutions. Ones built in a top down style which peaked in the 1960s. Ok boomer took off not because it dismisses old people, but because it dismisses the industrial mass media age itself. Ok boomer as faddish TikTik meme may go. But the new 2019 shorthand of “boomer” as derisive insult for failing-top-down-industrial-era-mass-media-institutions is likely here to stay.

2. Baby boomer is a misnomer, conflating the 1960s political/cultural divide with a boom in babies

Below are some key 1960s events:

  • 1963: Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech, Kennedy murdered
  • 1964: Civil Right Act, Beatles on Ed Sullivan
  • 1965: Voting Rights Act, Malcolm X murdered
  • 1968: Martin Luther King murdered, chaos at democratic national convention, Nixon elected
  • 1969: Peak troops in Vietnam, First draft lottery (for birth years 1944-1950), Neil Armstrong on moon, Woodstock music festival, Altamont concert

The Altamont concert is commonly considered the end of the 1960s. But the draft and Vietnam War didn’t wind down until 1972. And the Woolworth’s lunch counter protest was earlier in 1961. History is not tidy. But it’s fair to say the primary political and cultural events from the 1960s clustered in 1963-1969.

So what’s the earliest birth year for someone to be able to participate fully in the 1960s? I’d say being at least 13, a teenager in 1963 when Kennedy was murdered is a reasonable, if arbitrary, cutoff. So those born in 1950 or earlier. The demographic definition of boomer is anyone born 1946-1964. So just the first 4 years of the 18 years of the baby boom meet our cutoff. This means the majority of boomers are too young to have participated in the 1960s. Most baby boomers were in preschool, grade school, or middle school during Woodstock. Fact. Of course this isn’t news. Demographers have long talked about the early cohort of the baby boom being quite distinct. But in common usage, people are unaware of the basics. This also means many of the leaders of the cultural shifts happening in 1963-1969 were born before the demographic boom in babies officially began. Paul McCartney was born in 1942, missing the cutoff by 4 years. John Lennon in 1940, missed by 6. Martin Luther King 1929. Malcolm X 1925.

Perhaps an example will help. I was born in 1963. So I meet the formal demographic boomer criteria. But I was only 6 years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I recall it, vaguely. Though mostly because our black and white TV was busted at the time, and I remember my parents being very disappointed they couldn’t watch it live. But of the 1960s events listed above, that’s the only one I personally recall. The rest were reruns.

Let’s do music. A fine way to argue generations! To sharpen the point, I’ll lean a bit into my biases. So consider this a formal ok boomer trigger warning (if needed) before you proceed.

Jefferson Airplane is, well, unlistenable trash. Likewise most of the summer of love bands. As for the Grateful Dead, their MTV hit Touch of Gray from 1987 is ok, Friend of the Devil is ok after eight beers, and the rest of their oeuvre is never ok because it is mind numbingly forgettable and repetitive. If you want jam band, go with Phish. Disco was mostly before my time. In high school, I knew the Ho-tel Mo-tel Holiday-Inn part of Rappers Delight. Pete Townshend is the guy who wrote Eminence Front, Rough Boys, and Let My Love Open the Door. Not the guy who wrote My Generation. Though I’ve heard of that one at least. And Pete was born in 1945 by the way, so never got his boomer card. Too old. For his own generation. When I want to feel college nostalgia, I listen to R.E.M’s Murmur. I recall Girls Just Wanna Have Fun as an enjoyable, goofy MTV video. Nirvana was awesome. Pearl Jam not so much. Husker Du was fine but I like Bob Mould’s band Sugar better. Weezer is great. Their version of Africa is better than Toto, but not nearly as good as the definitive version by two guys at a pizza shop. Don’t @ me. Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran are what my kids listen to when they aren’t complaining about needing more screen time for TikTok. Letterman over Leno over Carson. The fact that I’m labeled a boomer and people assume I remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan is nuts. I wasn’t even born then. That happened five months later. But I digress.

Of course this is an utterly banal list for someone of my age and demographic. But that is precisely the point! Under no stretch of the imagination is this a “boomer” music list.

3. Demographic boomer versus Cultural boomer. Why decades are better for marking generations.

Back to data. Below is a great chart from PEW. A histogram of the number of Americans binned by age. Then split out by race. Caveat: it’s from 2018, so bump all ages up by 1.

Boomers are defined as age 54-72 (now 55-73). Let’s call them “demographic boomers”. See where I hand marked the chart in orange for those who were young adults (in their teens/20s) during the key years of 1963-1969. Let’s call these “cultural boomers”. Giving into my urge to include John Lennon, I chose the birth decade of 1940-1949 for cultural boomers. So those now 70-79. And yes, I rounded down one year from my earlier 1950 cutoff, to make the decade boundaries work.

Let’s avoid conflating these two:

  1. Cultural boomers. Born 1940-1949. Plus or minus a few years. Young adults during the critical years of 1963-1969, so participated in the cultural/political divide of the 1960s. Now in their 70s. Baby boomers in everyday usage. Old enough to have gone to Woodstock.
  2. Demographic boomers. Born 1946-1964. The official definition of boomer based on an arbitrary bulge in births. A worse than useless idea. One constantly conflated with what I’m calling “Cultural boomers”. Most demographic boomers were in preschool, grade school or middle school when Woodstock happened. Poor overlap with “Cultural boomers”, who were old enough to go.

In fact, we’d be better of if we dropped the use of generation names entirely. Can you remember the birth year definitions of boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z without looking back up at the chart? I can’t. On the other hand, I’m sure you can easily recall the rough dates for Woodstock, Beatlemania, Civil Rights, Martin Luther King, and the Vietnam war as being quintessential 1960s. Why? Because political/cultural breaks are real, and only happen once every 30-50 years. Generations aren’t real. They’re clickbait. We should stick with decades for generations. That makes them obviously arbitrary. Which is a feature, not a bug.

One more point. The demographic baby boom was mostly limited to whites. Look again at the chart above. There is not much if any baby boom bulge for blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. All the more reason to drop the idea of demographic boomer. The 1960s cultural divide impacted all Americans. It’s historically important and resonates even today. Generations defined by booms in babies are a myth.

To see how if this definition of cultural boomer holds up, let’s look at the birth years for all candidates for US president from the 1996 through 2020. I marked the cultural boomers, born 1940-1949 in yellow. I see yellow. Lots of yellow. Of course we should be wary of such tiny sample sizes. I suspect a similar chart of congress wouldn’t be as stark. But still, 10 out of 15.

If you want to be cynical, you could say those privileged to be born in 1940s waltzed into power following the devastation of World War II. And once in power, pulled the ladder up behind them. But more plausibly this is simply a first mover effect. The first movers formed by the trauma of leading through the 1960s political/cultural discontinuity became bedrock believers in the new order. Priests of the boomer faith. In the business world, the analogy I’d draw is to silicon valley company founders. Forged by trauma at their company’s creation, if founders survive to get to scale, at each new crisis they return to their founding myths and beliefs. Regardless of whether the outside world has now changed beyond recognition. Mark Zuckerberg 👀. Doubling down on your founding faith works perfectly forever, until it doesn’t.

Below is the same data in histogram form. The 10 candidates born 1940-1949 marked in yellow above are pictured. No decade besides the 1940s has more than one candidate. Note the gap in the 1950s. Born just a bit too late.

4. Six major US political realignments, so far

Political scientists (somewhat) agree there’ve been 6 major political realignments of Party Systems over the course of US history. From wikipedia, I’ve summarized the 6 realignments below.

  1. 1796. Jefferson: agrarian, south, pro France. Hamilton: commercial, new england, pro England.
  2. 1828. Jackson: populist, limited Fed government, catholic/foreign born, pro frontier, anti native american. Harrison: Protestant, native or english born, mid to upper class.
  3. 1856. Lincoln: north and west, anti-slavery, pro industry/railroads, pro tariff, tight money, Methodists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians. Cleveland: south, pro-slavery, Catholics, Episcopalians, and later pro-immigrant.
  4. 1896. McKinley/Teddy Roosevelt: pro-business, progressive, urban, north. Bryant/Wilson: populist, south.
  5. 1932. FDR: blue collar labor, immigrants, blacks, equality. Eisenhower: upper classes, business.
  6. 1964. Lyndon Johnson: civil rights, intellectuals, minorities. Nixon/Reagan: business, southern whites.

The sixth political realignment started in 1964. Obviously I believe we’re starting a 7th realignment now. So let’s compare with earlier ones.

Race. On race democrat Woodrow Wilson was progressive, which in the 1910s meant pushing blacks out of federal jobs. But by the 1920s, blacks started shifting their vote (to the extent it wasn’t blocked by violence) from republican to democratic, and by the time FDR got elected in 1932 the shift was complete and holds to this day. Civil rights for Lyndon Johnson democrats meant equality of opportunity for minorities. What’s changed since 1964 is Asians are now the most successful demographic group in the US, wealthier and scoring better on standardized tests than whites. So minority as a term has fallen out of favor. Instead, the language has shifted from equality of opportunity to social justice and equality of outcomes. Group differences in outcome are assumed to be due to oppression. This shift is sometimes called the great awokening. Matt Yglesias says “In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.” And under Trump of course, republicans are making increasingly racialized appeals to whites. A lot has changed since the last realignment in 1964.

Geography. The geographical split for most of US history was north and west being pro-business republican (or republican forerunners). With democrats being southern. But when LBJ passed civil rights, Nixon responded with his southern strategy, and now the white south is republican. But in the past few decades the north/south split has become far less important than the split between urban and rural. Population density now determines all. The voting map just below, from 1968, has Nixon (red) winning as republican, Humphrey (blue) losing as democrat, and George Wallace (orange) as splinter party from the democrats, running as a third party segregationist. People who later became republican.

1968 voting map, image source: wikipedia

In 2016 below, the split isn’t north/south. It’s about population density. High density democratic, low density republican. Compare California above to below. Or rural Maine.

2016 voting map, image source: wikipedia

We had a civil war over north/south. If we have another one, it will be rural/city.

Elites. Democrats being pro-intellectual started with progressives, continued with FDR, and continued through LBJ. But the modern rise of the meritocracy didn’t kicke into high gear until Harvard started requiring the SAT in 1934, with other colleges slowly following suite. By the 1970s, college became of the primary elite status gatekeeper. Leading to the world we live in today, with college graduates shifting heavily towards democrats. And with Asians suing Harvard for discrimination. As for (white) non-elites, they used to be called blue collar voters, voting solidly democratic. But now they’re called non-college whites, voting republican. The populist mantle shifted from Jefferson to Jackson, through FDR, to LBJ. But since 2016 has flipped sides to Trump republicans. This is a major change, as populism has long been a democratic tradition. As an aside, Republicans were very pro-immigrant during the height of the cold war under Reagan. But Democrats, as the party of blue collar workers, were against. That’s now flipped as well. Intellectuals, or college elites if you will, have always been pro-immigrant, and that now means democrats.

The case for declaring the 7th US political realignment seems clear enough.

5. Martin Gurri – The Revolt of the Public

Martin Gurri’s book The Revolt of the Public argues the internet information revolution is driving social change and political instability globally. Naturally people who build technology, aka silicon valley, love his book. Since tech is driving history. Even if they don’t always like where it’s autonomously going. While those who think politics drive history, east coast politicians, have ignored his book. Since my blog is about how technology co-evolves with society, I’m in the book-is-great camp.

Gurri splits the history of information into five waves: 1) primitive writing (think hieroglyphics), 2) alphabetical writing, 3) printing press, 4) mass media, 5) internet media. The previous wave of information, the fourth wave of mass media, peaked roughly in the 1960s. It favored highly structured hierarchy, where information first had to flow up to the top, before being broadcast out to the masses. Newspapers, then radio, then TV all had that model. Truth was clear, since it came from a small list of recognized sources. Walter Cronkite was peak mass media. He signed off each night with “that’s the way it is”. I am too young to have seen Cronkite shed a tear on live TV in 1963 while announcing JFK’s assassination, though I’ve seen it on Youtube. But Cronkite stayed on air until 1981, so I do remember him. Today, watching him in 2019 on Youtube, he appears to be an overbearing pompous newsreader. But I remember how highly respected he was back in the day. Pushing out his measured dose of top down of truth every weekday evening.

The leadership style during the mass media era was to feign omniscience and make utopian promises from an olympian distance. We will cure cancer, solve poverty, end all group differences, simultaneously cut taxes and raise spending, make up go down, and solve the human condition. Drawn to utopian promises which were never achieved, the chummy media looked the other way when things went bad. Gurri uses Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, a fantastically stupid idea which nearly started a nuclear war, and which the media agreed to politely ignore, as a canonical example of how things used to work.

Gurri doesn’t delve into history besides his few US examples. But my take on his framework is the utopian tendencies of the industrial mass media age had their natural end point in totalitarians like Hitler, Mao and Stalin. Utopians captured masterfully in fiction by George Orwell. The choices faced then are once again visited upon us in new guise in this next wave of internet media.

The internet shattered the gatekeepers, flooding everyone with orders of magnitude more information than they could possible to consume. Like the printing press before it, the internet took communication that used to be expensive and rare and made it cheap enough for upstarts. Those who lived in the worst parts of the protestant reformation and thirty years war cursed the printing press. Likewise many curse facebook and twitter today.

Today’s elites continue to make utopian technocratic promises as they traditionally did in the industrial era. But now these promises get exposed (sometimes with truth, sometimes with lies) on the internet as failures. The public can easily organize using internet social media to be against. But they cannot seem to get organized well enough to be for. The Arab spring, yellow vests, Brexit, and on and on. Against, but not for. The public has drifted into nihilistic protesting.

We’ve recently started seeing what the next wave of digital native politicians may look like, in people such as Andrew Yang and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Some call AOC authentic. But that’s not quite right. AOC is a brilliant and constant performer. She just performs in the new social media style. Not in the olympian, top down industrial style. AOC is your pal or buddy or friend. Someone who plays gotcha fighting your enemies. Trump of course is also a natural at twitter, unlike most of his cohort. Those who are suited to the new media and political environment don’t have to be young. Though it probably helps. As it did during the 1960s realignment.

6. Tying it all together

The reason ok boomer packs so much punch is because boomer has become a stand-in for the old industrial era style of politics and culture created in the 1960s. Boomer insitutitions and politics are being attacked because they’ve lost credibility. It is not a coincidence trust in institutions was sky high in the 1960s, right after the last realignment, and now is near all time lows. I’ve seen people taking ok boomer as a literal taunt of old people. And getting pedantic about who and who is not a demographic boomer. Which is both technically correct and completely missing the point. Don’t do this! Unless you enjoy being ratioed.

Once you realize ok boomer is a euphemism for organizational failure, you see why there’s a certain logic in applying it to anyone over 30. It indicts everything from long lines at the DMV, to fake news, to NIMBY, to fires and power outages in California, tech monopolies, even global climate change. If you’ve ever worked in a top down, hierarchical organization, one which broadcasts truth from the top, well then, you’re an honorary boomer. And I’m sorry.

There’s a very poor match between the official definition of boomer based on demography, and what I’m calling “cultural boomers”. But perhaps we really have four natural cultural groups: 1) founding “cultural boomers”, born 1940-1949, 2) a large lump of late boomer/gen x/millennial followers, born 1950-2000, 3) next gen founders, born 2000-2010, 4) next gen followers, born 2010+. As for me, I’m keeping my eye on Greta Thunberg, born 2003.

Which leads me back to my thesis. Ok boomer is a signal we’re in the middle of a seventh political realignment. One supercharged by the internet information tsunami, where everyone can broadcast true or fake news at will. A world without gatekeepers.

My hope is we eventually stop our current slide towards China’s approach to the internet. A technocratically alluring type of market authoritarianism. Our enlightenment fashioned liberal institutions are the product of the largest previous shift in information technology in history, the printing press. We should keep calm, carry on, and muddle through. Into a new era where our institutions have been reborn and reconciled to the internet.

Appendix – links to more reading if you want to keep going.

You won’t miss anything if you skip the appendix info below. But if you want more links to read further, here you go. And thanks for slogging through 3000 words to get this far! I appreciate your time.

For Martin Gurri. Follow him on twitter, read his blog, get his book. If you want a good introduction, my top recommendation is this recent podcast.

Taylor Lorenz is excellent if you’re old like me and want someone who gets influencer culture and social media. And knows how to explain it. Here on twitter. Here at NY Times.

The other responses I’ve seen to Lorenz’s piece stick to her basic young bickering with old framework. But it’s worth linking to a few examples. Kevin Drum responded to Gen Z complaints about of rent being 50% more expensive and nobody in Gen Z having healthcare by fact checking the data, which says otherwise. Tyler Cowen responded “My biggest worry about ‘OK Boomer’ is the generational stereotyping it embodies. It wouldn’t be acceptable to baldly criticize older people simply for being old. So why is it OK to use a circumlocution that does the same thing?” Brian Resinick’s title captures his point: Why old people will always complain about young people. These are all 100% correct as far as they go. But are also a good way to get ratioed. They miss what’s powering the underlying ok boomer dynamic: organizational failure.

Carlota Perez on tech cycles. This piece was already too long to have a section on Perez and tech cycles. But that’s my larger frame for thinking about Martin Gurri’s ideas. History is messy, so if you select your cycles by tech, they don’t align to cycles by politics. So Perez’s cycles don’t precisely match the political ones in this piece. But they match well enough to be interesting, and they match for the particular cycle we’re in now. An computer/software/internet driven tech cycle, powering a self-reinforcing political realignment. In any case, see my post on Perez for more, as it’s a overview how I think about Perez’s book. For a good recent podcast interview, go here. In particular I liked how optimistic Perez has recently become about reform. This is a change from her position a few years ago. I am fairly sure she thinks ok boomer is a good sign.

It didn’t fit into my piece, but this video clip of 25 year old New Zealand parliamentarian Chlöe Swarbrick tossing off an “ok boomer” is both rude and powerful. It happens quickly at the 14 second mark in the video. Perhaps a sign of things to come.

And since this is appendix, I’ll just say I’m rather dfond of this header image for the piece. On the left cultural boomers. On the right sleek upstarts, honed to perfection through their performance on social media

One last point. I also did an longer date and histogram on presidential candidate birth dates going back to the 1960 presidential election. The sample size is still small but better. Just eyeballing it, I think the shorter version is ok and less distracting, so used that in my main post. But if you are curious, see longer version below. If I ever take this further, I’d do congress back to the 1960s and the last realignment, which would provide enough data to really see what’s going on. But that would require more work than I’d ever to do by hand, so I’d need to find a data source instead of just typing in stuff from wikipedia.

One reply on “Why did boomer become an insult? Because the internet is shattering industrial era politics and culture”

Found this piece through your Stratechery profile, and I wanted to give you major mad props! This is really quite wonderful and thought-provoking. (My one quibble would be that the frustration you feel at being grouped with the 1940s boomer leadership is somewhat a distraction from the major argument. 😄)

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