OK, Boomer: “You’re Too Old to Understand”

The psychology behind the conflict between Boomers and Millennials.

Posted Nov 30, 2019

“You don’t understand,” 22-year-old Nancy* said to me after the financial crash of 2008. “You’re from a different generation. I know you’re trying, but you don’t get it. Your generation grew up in a much more secure time. These days, nothing is secure. Everything is frightening. The world is frightening.”

Her words have been echoed by numerous clients recently, and in the past week, articles about the meme “OK Boomer” have clarified some of the current conflict between generations. An article in the Washington Post described a new book about the subject by Jill Filipovic. And Aja Romano, writing for VOX, stated, “OK boomer isn’t just about the past. It’s about our apocalyptic future.”

But it’s also about our psychological and emotional well-being. Nancy had come to therapy for help with her anxiety, which she often covered with contempt and anger, and she was turning those feelings on me. I had tried to explain that I did understand. I had grown up with race and anti-war demonstrations, the threat of nuclear war, and an overwhelming sense that the world was turning upside down.

“Oh, now you sound just like my parents,” she said contemptuously. “They don’t get it at all. And neither do you.”

“I’m thinking I should go work with another therapist,” Nancy said. “Someone closer to my age. Someone who would understand the way the world works right now.”

A big part of my job as a psychotherapist is to understand my clients, so the idea that I simply could not understand her because of my age was and is quite disturbing to me. There are, of course, some people I don’t understand, no matter how hard we both try. When that does happen, and once we are clear that we are not a good match, I try to help them find another therapist who will meet their needs. But it seemed to me that Nancy’s need to believe that I could not understand her was psychologically meaningful. I wondered if it was possible to reach through her anger to get to that underlying meaning. And I hoped that if I could do so, I could also help with her anxiety.

I was thinking about this conversation with Nancy when I read Romano's description of "OK Boomer" this week. Romano wrote that it's a phrase that “really took off this year on TikTok, as a rebuttal to angry rants by baby boomers about kids these days.” Romano tells us that “a song by Peter Kuli & Jedwill known as 'OK BOOMER!' — the verses define boomers as racist, fascist Trump supporters with bad hair — became a popular song choice for TikTok sing-along videos this fall.” 

123Rf image #101282942 Iakov Filimonov
Source: 123Rf image #101282942 Iakov Filimonov

And I was thinking about Nancy again recently as clients spoke about the difficulties of family visits in which political differences often split along generational divides. 

“I can’t talk with any of my relatives about anything meaningful,” said one man in his thirties. “The idea that I might not feel like they do about the current administration or about the environment is really not up for discussion. They know how things are, or so they think, and they’re not about to consider anything else.” 

A woman told me, “My mothers are both lesbians, but they can’t talk about my being queer. It’s just not in their vocabulary. It makes them crazy. How can that be?”

“OK, Boomer,” is, according to a recent article in USA Today, a reflection of "a sophisticated, mass retaliation" going on “against the generations past that have shaped politics, economics, and the environment so strongly.” 

The irony is that for some of us — full disclosure, in case you haven't already figured it out: I am a certified baby boomer — who participated in race and antiwar marches, and the women’s movement of the 1970’s, these words sound remarkably similar to the rally cry we used when we were young rebels: "Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” And the response of today’s boomers is almost identical to that of our parents’ generation’s, captured by the oft-repeated phrase from a song in the musical “Bye Bye Birdie": “What’s the matter with kids today?” 

But the greater tragedy is that so many people, with so many different perspectives, are being lumped together under the heading of a particular generation. As a psychotherapist, I see baby boomers whose politics are as liberal as any gen Z member's, and millennials more conservative than any of my friends. And I see the opposite as well. 

To make things worse, the generalizations and rigidity of beliefs hide the fact that so many of these individuals are hurting no matter their age, politics, or finances. As Romano notes, “It’s important to understand that what really lies behind the meme is increasing economic, environmental, and social anxiety, and the feeling that baby boomers are leaving younger generations to clean up their mess.” But boomers are frightened as well, and we don’t have anyone to blame anymore – we didn’t clean up our parents’ generation’s mess, and we’re afraid not just that our children won’t clean up ours, but that they won’t take care of us as we get too old to do anything about it for ourselves. 

Is there any hope that we might work together to make a different outcome? Can we heal the injuries we are inflicting on one another? Can we stop the destruction, as younger generations are crying out for us to do? Or is this simply one more iteration of the life cycle, with generations misunderstanding one another because, as Freud suggested, it’s in the nature of the beast? 

I like to think that we have a chance to move forward in a more constructive way, those of us in the same generations who have significant conflicts among ourselves, as well as the different generations. And although I realize that it is hard to empathize with or offer understanding to people whose rhetoric is filled with hate and criticism, I believe that recognizing underlying meaning is a first step to finding solutions. 

This is, of course, my psychotherapist self speaking, but as psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut put it, “the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person," which he called empathy, is one of the greatest healing techniques of all. Such empathy does not mean always agreeing with or accepting the validity of the other’s belief system. It is, in fact, often the starting place for genuine disagreement. 

Empathy was where Nancy and I ultimately began to get together. When I finally realized that defending myself to her was not helping, I asked her to tell me more about her experiences. What didn’t I understand? Could she explain it to me? Could she try to help me understand? 

Those questions were the first steps to finding ways to work with Nancy’s anxiety and what turned out to be an underlying depression. Ten years later, she has far less anxiety and many tools for managing the feelings when they do emerge. We realized that her anger was a reaction to her sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Today she has much more of a sense of her own strengths and capacity to do things – what therapists call a sense of agency. She feels more connected to her parents, although she still gets irritated with them, and with me, when we fall into rigid and unthinking patterns – which we do. But she is able to discuss the reason for her irritation, and she is also able to acknowledge her own rigidities and prejudices. Nancy has grown more empathic and less critical during this time. And so have her parents and I.   

* Name and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

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