OK boomer meme online culture generations

The discursive construction of the OK boomer meme

12 minutes to read
Article
Elle Lüchau
30/03/2020

OK boomer” is often explained as a meme used to comment on or criticise the actions and opinions of the so-called boomer generation. In this article, I analyse the discursive construction of the OK boomer meme, examining its political significance and its different modes of use in a digital media system.

Introduction to the OK boomer meme

The catchphrase and meme “OK boomer” gained popularity among young people in the beginning of 2019 when a man claimed that Generation Z and millennials have a “Peter Pan syndrome” and do not want to grow up. His claim was recorded in a video and shared on the media platform TikTok. Users on TikTok began to comment “OK boomer” on the video, thus starting the (online) use and spread of the meme (Bote, 2019). 

OK boomer is often explained as a meme used by young people to comment on or criticise the actions or opinions of boomers. The term “boomer” refers to the Baby Boomer generation, consisting of people born after World War II, approximately between 1946 and 1964 (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). The meme has been used in several different contexts and gained even more attention when Kiwi millennial politician Chlöe Swarbrick responded “OK boomer” to another politician in a parliamentary debate on climate change (McCarthy, 2019).

While some claim that the OK boomer meme is ageist (Brice-Saddler, 2019), others explain how this ageist perception of the meme is a misunderstanding, and that the meme is essentially about frustration and anxiety about the future (Romano, 2019). In November 2019, a Twitter user posted a picture of his girlfriend’s explanation of the meme, which went viral both on Twitter and Reddit. According to her, and the thousands of people agreeing with her, OK boomer can be explained like this:

Explanation of the OK boomer meme

This explanation showcases both the frustration that many young people feel but also the ageist aspect of the meme. In what follows, I’ll present my analysis and discussion of the OK boomer phenomenon.

About this analysis

You will most likely stumble upon “OK boomer” in several online spaces, such as TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “OK boomer” is used both as a comment, as a hashtag and in the context of photos or animations - it's an internet meme, which is any digital unit that transfers culture (Beskow, Kumar & Carley, 2020).

In this article, I focus on the use of OK Boomer memes on Reddit. Some of my collected data dates back to the beginning of 2019 while most of my data consists of examples from late 2019 and early 2020. I have followed the OK boomer phenomenon online and collected data over a period of approximately two months. The data is primarily collected from the subreddit channel r/okboomer but examples from other subreddits are also included.

In this analysis I will examine and discuss how OK boomer memes on Reddit are used in an ideological and discursive battle of meaning. On the basis of theory on ideology, discourse, the hybrid media system and memes, I will try to gain a deeper understanding of the possible interpretations of the meme and its political meaning and influence.

An ideological battle between generations?

Ideology refers to “any set of socially structured ideas guiding behavior and thought in any domain of life” (Blommaert, 2019). Furthermore, “ideology stands for how we think things are and should be” (ibid.). Several of the OK boomer memes found on Reddit criticize certain political ideas and thus implicitly represent a different ideology, existing among those who share the memes. The climate crisis is an example thereof. The picture below shows climate deniers being criticised through a meme. The meme is commented upon with “OK, Boomer” (see title), which indicates that the content is dismissed as nonsense and implies that the Australian fires are indeed related to climate change. Climate change denial is also discussed in the comment section of the meme. There, users elaborate on their dissatisfaction with those in power and their frustration with climate change deniers.

Boomers and the climate crisis

In a similar case, in the wake of President Trump’s attack on Iran, several anti-war memes were being shared. What can be seen in both the Iran and the climate crisis memes, the OK boomer meme is not about explicitly pushing forward one’s own ideas, but rather rejecting and complaining about the ideas of others.

Besides several memes made about climate change and the Iran attack, other political events and discussions are commented on as well. To mention but a few: gun politics, Trump’s impeachment, feminism, veganism, the LGBTQ community and not least technology. The latter topic needs further elaboration since it differs significantly from the others.

The OK boomer meme is not about explicitly pushing forward one’s own ideas, but rather rejecting and complaining about the ideas of others.

Jokes about technology are very popular in relation to the OK boomer meme, especially on the subreddit channel r/boomershumor. While some of the aforementioned posts comment on more specific events or current political discussions, the technology memes are comments on the general continuing criticism of young people spending too much time online; they are thus a commentary on the technological skepticism existing among older people. These memes are less explicitly political and more about situations in people’s everyday lives. However, they are still deeply ideological in the sense that they represent the social identities of those who share the memes. These memes represent an opposition to technology skeptics, and they do this not by "mocking back" with boomer jokes but by not even acknowledging the jokes as being jokes; rather, they reject them by labeling them with the phrase "OK boomer".

Boomers and technology

The OK boomer memes show how people living in different social realities have different ideas and behavior. Not least, they show a clash of norms. What I infer from the many OK boomer memes about political events and about resistance to technological development is an indirect ideological fight for the acceptance of political, economic and cultural change and development. Even though the memes differ widely in their content, they essentially all complain about people who try to hold on to the (Western and, in some cases, US-specific) norms, ideas and lifestyles of the past decades.

But there is an interesting point that must be noted. The actual content of the OK boomer memes is not explicitly criticising an entire generation as such. The term “boomer” has been redefined and assigned a new meaning through these memes. It refers not to the dissatisfaction with an entire generation, but rather to the rejection of some specific ideologies, which a stereotypical member - but certainly not every member - of that generation would identify with. Thus, the use of "boomer" is both a generalisation based on age, and a reconceptualisation of a term which in its simple and original sense does not refer to anything political, but has, through time, been ascribed several different meanings. This new use and meaning of the term "boomer" could probably explain the misunderstandings of the OK boomer meme that was mentioned earlier.

The OK boomer meme shows how people living in different social realities have different ideas and behavior. Not least, it shows a clash of norms.

To complicate things further, it is not clear how much the people using, creating and sharing the OK boomer meme would actually claim that the dismissive characterisation should be directed at an entire generation. Most likely, it differs from person to person. As seen in a comment on an OK boomer meme seen below, there is no complete consensus about the meaning and use of the term "boomer". It seems that this generational distinction between people might distort the actual purpose of the meme. As both Sunkara (2019) and Sodha (2019) point out, maybe it makes more sense to focus on class rather than age distinctions. Still, it could be that the term is so powerful because it does not make too many class, social, cultural or other distinctions, but may include a wide array of people due to its broad possibilities for usage. Hence, I will leave it up for discussion how appropriate the boomer term is compared to the actual content and underlying purpose of the memes.

A comment on Reddit showing uncertainty about when the OK boomer meme should be used

The discursive construction of OK boomer

To further understand how the gap between generations is being created and maintained, let’s have a look at the discursive elements of the OK boomer memes found on Reddit. Firstly, the context of the memes plays an important role when trying to understand the communicative action (Maly, 2019). The memes are shared on an online forum where most posts are based on photos or animations and little text. Additionally, Reddit is often used for entertainment and thus humor plays a big role in the posts as well. Discussions about the posts can be found in the comment sections, but are mixed with jokes and random comments. An example of the latter would be people continuing the lyrics of the Eminem song found in a meme about the US government and military service in high schools, in which a photo of Eminem singing “Hi kids! Do you like violence?” is used.

Reddit is a community of mainly young people (Statista Research Department, 2019), with a special kind of lingo and a widespread use of humor to comment on societal and political matters. Moreover, the characteristics of the memes themselves affect the discourse. As Beskow, Kumar and Carley (2020) explain, "a common form [of internet memes] is an image with superimposed text that conveys some type of merged message" (p. 1). The OK boomer memes on Reddit are easy to share and consume, but at the same time they do not thoroughly explain the things they comment on.

Canning, Reinsborough and Smucker (2017 in Beskow et al., 2020) claim that memes have replaced nuanced political debate. This claim is interesting in relation to the OK boomer memes because we see this lack of precision and generalisations being made on the base of people’s age. Additionally, some memes present historic events in both simplified and misleading ways, such as the anti-war meme seen below, which claims that American citizens in the 1960’s protested when they were sent to war, but that today the same people gladly send people to war. Of course, the point is not so much a matter of historical accuracy or detail, but rather the comparison of the 1960’s anti-war mindset with today’s lack thereof, according to the meme.

Boomers and war

OK boomer in the hybrid media system

As we can see, the OK boomer memes on Reddit are used to comment upon various political events and current developments in society and the discussions surrounding them. At the same time, the OK boomer meme does not seem to index a single political goal or key issue, as seen with movements such as #metoo or #blacklivesmatter. Rather, there is a broader idea of change behind it and it constitutes a statement about having an open mind and welcoming new ideas and development. Still, the meme is not used to encourage people to act. Therefore, we have to ask, can it have any political influence?

The OK boomer meme is used to tie together different political ideas or movements. 

As described by Chadwick, Dennis and Smith (2016), the hybrid media system is built on an interplay of older and newer media logics, which create new modes of engagement. The OK boomer meme is, as showed above, used to comment on political events being shared in the papers, on television etc. When something of particular political importance happens, you’ll almost instantly find OK boomer memes about it on social media platforms. The meme becomes a way to express one’s opinions and to be a part of a community with an implicit and shared understanding of how, why and when to use the meme. This changes the idea about what political participation is, as also explained by Chadwick, Dennis and Smith (2016). The OK boomer meme is used to tie together different political ideas or movements, such as the climate movement or the LGBTQ rights movement, and is thus not (yet) a movement on its own.

Additionally, many OK boomer memes are used to describe minor everyday life situations, which gives the meme alot of "noise", seen from a political perspective. Not least, this could give the meme even more resistance due to its - depending on the interpretation - ageist meaning. We can only guess if this resistance will make the meme stronger or weaker in the future. However, the meme is very popular and continues to gain a lot of media coverage, so I believe it has the potential to develop into something substantial. But let us note that the meme has not yet been used in many political situations on TV or in real life. Based on how fast the video of the Chlöe Swarbrick went viral, it might be that actions like hers are what is needed to make the meme more influential and powerful. We’ll have to wait and see if that will be the case.

 

References

Beskow, D. M., Kumar, S., & Carley, K. M. (2020). The evolution of political memes: Detecting and characterizing internet memes with multi-modal deep learning. Information Processing and Management, 57(2), 102170. doi:10.1016/j.ipm.2019.102170

Blommaert, J. (2019, September 16). Ideology. Diggit Magazine.

Bote, J. (2019, November 4). Why are Gen Z and millennials calling out boomers on TikTok? 'OK, boomer,' explained. USA Today. 

Brice-Saddler, M. (2019, November 5). A conservative radio host compared ‘boomer’ to the n-word. Even Dictionary.com was appalled. Washingtonpost.com.

Chadwick, A., Dennis, J. & Smith, A. P. (2016). Politics in the age of hybrid media: Power, systems, and media logics. In A. Bruns, G. Enli, E. Skogerbø, A, O. Larsson, & C. Christensen (eds.) (2016) The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics. Routledge.

Maly, I. (2019, February 2). Discourse. Diggit Magazine. 

McCarthy, K. (2019, November 6). Why this 25-year-old politician said 'OK Boomer' during speech on climate change. ABC News. 

Merriam-Webster. (N.d.). baby boomer. 

Reddit subchannel r/okboomer

Reddit subchannel r/boomershumor.

Romano, A. (2019, November 19). “OK boomer” isn’t just about the past. It’s about our apocalyptic future. Vox. 

Sodha, S. (2019, November 23). Enough of Gen Z’s sorry generation game. Get the boomers onside. The Guardian. 

Statista Research Department. (2019). Distribution of Reddit users in the United States as of February 2016, by age group. 

Sunkara, B. (2019, November 6). Why it's time to ditch the 'OK Boomer' meme. The Guardian. 

@TheGallowBoob, Twitter.