We have all heard it by now. “Okay Boomer.” That so-called witty retort from anyone under 35 in response to anything anyone over 35 says to them that they disagree with. When I first heard it, I chuckled. I got. It’s normal for each younger generation to look at the one before them as dinosaurs who “don’t get it.” It is a tale as old as time. I also often agreed with many of the Millennials’ sentiments, so I went along with the joke.
But then three things changed. First, I realized that many of these Millennials were identifying me as a Baby Boomer, which technically I am not. Second, I started listening more closely and concluded too many of the Millennials' complaints focus on everything they think Boomers did wrong and they give absolutely no credit for all the things they did right. Finally, their voices started to sound condescending. Oftentimes when expressing themselves to older generations, Millennials speak to them like they are school children who have had no life experiences and are too old to understand simple concepts. The arrogance and dismissiveness of it are breathtaking and it is now clear to me that these Millennials need a history lesson.
I should state, I am the mother of three Millennials, so I must tread lightly. I do not want to stereotype or generalize. Of course, not ALL Millennials are the same, just as not ALL Baby Boomers are the same. And the real lesson in this blog is that all generations have something to learn from the others.
So, who exactly are these generations?
Defining generations is difficult to do, and depending on where you turn, you will find different date ranges to define specific generations. Most, however, only differ by a year or two in either direction. Because I am Canadian, I will use Statistics Canada’s definitions. Each generation is approximately 20 years. With the flip of the calendar year, there are currently six living generations. (The most recent begins in 2020 and is yet to be named.) The Silent Generation are those born between 1920 and 1945. This is the generation that lived through the great depression and World War II. They are between 75 and 100 years old. Virtually all are retired. They are the Boomers’ parents and Millennials’ grandparents. I would argue that they have witnessed more rapid and extreme advancements than any other generation. Motor vehicles, telephones, radio, and flight were new in their time and all changed their lives and the world in ways previously unimaginable. And the evolution of discovery has been non-stop ever since.
The next generation is the much-maligned Boomers. They were born between 1946 and 1965. They are currently between the ages of 54 and 74. Some have retired, some are still working. They were born in the post-war era. The previous generations had faced much struggle and strife, but Boomers were born into a time of hope and prosperity. The good forces in the world had banded together to fight evil and won. The western world was celebratory. Pictures from this era depict wholesome-looking families enjoying picnics and road trips in their new cars. The children of this era did not waste their opportunities. They are an educated, hardworking, productive generation who are responsible for many of the modern freedoms we take for granted. The list is long, but to summarize broadly Boomers are responsible for Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and National Lampoon; they were the leaders of the Civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ2 rights movements; they invented the Internet, the personal computer, cell phones, and smartphones; and they were the voices of burn the bra, discard the tie, grow your hair, and speak your mind.
The women’s March in Washington DC would not have taken place if not for the protest work of the Boomers before them. Pride parades would not exist if not for Boomers speaking up about gay rights. AIDS would not have been stalled if not for the advocacy of Boomers. Women would still be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen if not for Boomers. And Greta Thunberg and repressed nations across the globe would not be able to mobilize the protests and attention they have without the inventions, innovations, and freedom of speech fights of Boomers. The Boomers are a generation who fought their whole lives for change, advancement, and freedom and they feel, quite rightfully so, that they are being unfairly maligned.
Younger generations often fail to understand that it is only natural for people to stick to what they know and are comfortable with, and most people take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to life. The older we get the less inclined we are to want to take on change. But this isn’t to say we don’t appreciate growth, opportunity, and evolution, we just realize that as much as things change, they also tend to stay the same. A simple example – World War II was supposed to be humanity’s big lesson about war. We were supposed to have learned from that war’s atrocities that bloody battles should never be the path to peace. But look around us, wars rage across the globe. We learned nothing.
So sometimes, the actions and reactions that younger generations witness older generations take and have, are misunderstood for complacency, selfishness, and lack of caring, when really what they are witnessing is the weary exhaustion of a generation who has been fighting for change, and working for evolution for decades, and now they are simply tired. They are ready to pass the torch but are perhaps fearful about doing so. They aren’t confident that Millennials/society will care for them the same way the Boomers cared for the Silent Generation that came before them.
And this is where my generation comes in. I am part of Generation X; those born between 1966 and 1979. We are now 39 to 53 years old. Also referred to as Baby Busters, we are what I call the overlooked sandwich generation, caught ignored and in between the Boomers and the Millennials. Born during a less hopeful time when birthrates were dropping in North America. The Vietnam War was raging and so too was the civil rights movement in the USA. Political protests south of the border were commonplace, and Canada became home to draft dodgers. When Generation X hit childrearing age, birth control was widely used, and women put off having children until they were older. Generation X was also the first where almost every household both the husband and wife left the home to work. Generation X also entered a workforce that was not nearly as stable as Baby Boomers before them or Millennials after them. Lifetime jobs did not exist. Company pensions and benefit plans were slashed. And the economy has been a rollercoaster. In 1981, the year the oldest of Generation X would have been trying to enter the workforce for the first time, the unemployment rate in Canada was at 12.8%, the highest it had been since 1934. There was another recession in 1989 when these first workers were 23. And they were hit again in 2009 at age 43, and then again for good measure in 2013 when they were 46. Every one of these recessions represents job losses, stagnant salaries, and financial struggles for real people.
Amid all this economic struggle the children and parents of Gen X were both getting older. Now my sandwich generation was not only responsible for taking care of their growing children but also their aging and ailing Boomer parents. And newsflash, many of these Boomers aren’t the rich, relaxed, retired folks Millennials think they are. Boomers are finding their retirement funds are not stretching as far as they had hoped. Pharmacare, dental care, and extended medical are things many must pay for out of pocket, and those expenses have increased while their fixed retirement incomes have not. Some have been forced to stay in their jobs longer than planned, some have had to return to work, and many rely on Gen X children for help. Gen X acts as chauffeur, accountant, nurse, counselor, caretaker, housekeeper, and more not only to their own children but in many cases to their Boomer parents as well. Some Gen Xers, when faced with serious or terminal illnesses in parents, must leave their jobs to provide care, which has a financial impact on their home. While Millennials fear they will never be able to afford to buy a home, Generation X fears they will never be able to afford to retire as their financial, physical, and personal resources are stretched to their max.
And now I am full circle back to the Millennials. Those born between 1980 and 1999. They are currently 20 to 40 years old. They are the creators of “okay Boomer.” The quip to put a generation in their place. Recently, when I heard this remark, I tried to question the person who said it. I asked why they thought it was okay to generalize and disregard an entire generation, especially people who had more life experience and who had clearly contributed a lot to society. This young person, adorned in designer clothes made in China holding his Starbucks to-go cup, proceeded to lecture me about climate change, and how the previous generations destroyed the earth, and his generation will never be able to buy a house, post-secondary education was too expensive, and Boomers just don’t get it. When he was done, I started to challenge his positions, beginning with an argument that his generation was a far more “disposable” one than the Boomer generation, he held up his hand and interrupted me. He told me I was just like the rest and that I didn’t want to listen to his generation so he wasn’t interested in what I had to say and walked away.
And therein lies the problem. I have had many Millennials do the same thing in a myriad of contexts. For some reason, they believe they have a right, are entitled to express their opinions. They can be very long-winded, and they expect silent attentiveness to their rant whether verbal or written. But when someone responds with a rebuttal, a counter-opinion, a challenge, the Millennials refuse to listen/read. This is simply arrogant. By responding like this they are saying that only their opinion, their point of view, and the sound of their voice has value. They imply with their criticism of previous generations that they are a perfect generation that has all the answers. But if they were to listen, truly listen with an open mind, they would hear and realize that in some things the Boomers agree with them. Of course, Boomers know they made mistakes. Of course, they know they were not perfect. None of is. Sadly, it is usually only with age, some experience, and a little more wisdom, that we are willing to admit to our mistakes and imperfections.
It will be interesting to see how Post-Millennials, those born between 2000 and 2019 will view the efforts of Millennials, because, in my opinion, it is the Post-Millennials who are acting and forcing change. Whether it be the kids from the Parkland, Florida advocating for new gun laws in the US, Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power about climate change, or Indigenous water youth activist Autumn Peltier bringing global attention to the Indigenous water crisis in Canada, it is the Post-Millennials whose voices are being heard. There are no condescending tones, no witty quips about the generations before, just facts and a demand for change from those who have the power to make those changes. Along with a subtle reminder that they are next in line, and they are playing by different rules. So, Millennials are cautioned to be careful, karma is a funny thing and what comes around tends to go around. They might be hearing Post-Millennials muttering “sure Millennial” under their breath in their future.
The first of the Millennials are now 40, the age that we start getting a little more retrospective. That age when we are first willing to admit to our imperfections and mistakes. A good age to speak less and listen more. And when you do decide to speak, ask questions and then listen thoughtfully to the answers. This is truly the best way to ensure a better future. Only by listening to the previous generations can we learn from and avoid their mistakes as well as truly benefit from their triumphs. And only then can we pass those lessons along to subsequent generations in hopes they simply don’t resort to mocking and ignoring you, but rather encourage the next generation to continue to fight for change.