US News

‘OK Boomer:’ how a meme traces the rise of Gen Z political consciousness

The phrase “OK Boomer” has become popular over the past two years as an all-purpose retort with which young people dismiss their elders for being “old-fashioned”.

“OK Boomer” began as a meme in TikTok videos, but our research shows the catchphrase has become much more. The simple two-word phrase is used to express personal politics and at the same time consolidate an awareness of intergenerational politics, in which Gen Z are coming to see themselves as a cohort with shared interests.

What does ‘OK Boomer’ mean?

The viral growth of the “OK Boomer” meme on social media can be traced to Gen Z musician @peterkuli’s remix OK Boomer, which he uploaded to TikTok in October 2019. The song was widely adopted in meme creations by his Gen Z peers, who call themselves “Zoomers” (the Gen Z cohort born in 1997-2012).

In the two-minute sound clip @peterkuli distilled an already-popular sentiment into a two-word phrase, accusing “Boomers” (those born during the 1946–64 postwar baby boom) of being condescending, being racist and supporting Donald Trump, who was then US president.

In essence, the “OK Boomer” meme emerged as a shorthand for Gen Z to push back against accusations of being a “fragile” generation unable to deal with hardship. But it has evolved into an all-purpose retort to older generations – but especially Boomers – when they dispense viewpoints perceived as presumptive, condescending or politically incorrect.

The meme arose in a wider context of “Boomer blaming”. In this view, the older generation has bequeathed Gen Z a host of societal issues, from Brexit and Trump to intergenerational economic inequality and climate change.

From ‘big P’ politics to ‘everyday politics’ and ‘intergenerational politics’

In our recent study on forms of online activism and advocacy on TikTok, we looked at 1,755 “OK Boomer” posts from 2019 and 2020 and found young people used the meme to engage in “everyday politics”.

Unlike “big P” politics – the work of governments, parliaments and politicians – “everyday politics” are political interests, pursuits and discussions framed through personal experiences.

On TikTok, young people construct and communicate their “everyday politics” by displaying their personal identities in highly personable ways, to demonstrate solidarity with or challenge beliefs and principles in society.

The “OK Boomer” meme and others like it allow young people to partake in a form of “intergenerational politics”. This is the tendency for people from a particular age cohort to form a shared political consciousness and behaviors, usually in opposition to the political attitudes of other groups. This is also reminiscent of when Boomers themselves encountered their own intergenerational politics in the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s.

Doing ‘politics’ on TikTok

On TikTok, political expression can take the form of viral dances and audio memes. Young people use youthful parlance and lingo, pop cultural references and emojis to shape their collective political culture. In our study, we found three meme forms were especially popular:

  • “Lip-sync activism” involved using lip-syncing to overlay one’s facial expressions and gestures over a soundtrack, either in agreement with or to challenge the lyrics and moral tone of a song.