On one side of the TikTok split screen was a middle-aged man, ranting that “millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome.”
“They don’t ever want to grow up,” he said, referring to the fictional character who fights adulthood.
On the other side of the split screen, a teenager contemplated the rant before silently holding up a notepad, and the phrase “OK Boomer” was born.
Since 2019, the hashtag #okboomer has been used 3.7 billion times on TikTok and has sparked debate between Boomers — born 1946 to 1964 — and Zoomers — born in the 1990s to the 2010s, and who use the video conferencing app Zoom liberally — about whether age and generation are to blame for society’s ills.
Some observers think the debate is fundamentally illogical. “Generations are pretty bogus. The labels we use to casually slice up society — boomer, millennial, Gen X, Gen Z — are a nearly useless way of thinking about politics, culture or business in America,” wrote journalist Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times in 2019.
“The very idea that tens of millions of people across different classes and races and geographies might hold similar views on a range of subjects just because they happened to be born during the same 20-year span of American history — the whole thing sounds a bit too much like astrology, doesn’t it?” he asked.
Niraj Dawar, professor emeritus of marketing at the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, agrees, calling generational labels “obsolete.” Labels are helpful if the generation shares characteristics, behaviors or events — like a world war, he said.
Even then, generational labels cannot always be used to predict how people within the same age range will behave, or buy, or vote, he said.
“You have two groups of millennials, one that plays golf and the other doesn't,” he messaged to VOA Student Union. “It's very likely that their golf playing is a better predictor of their other consumption than being a millennial.”
“And, in fact, being a golfer may mean their consumption is more similar to other golfers [say boomer golfers] than non-golf playing millennials,” he texted.
Generations used to be counted as every 20 to 30 years because people generally followed the same life milestones: getting married near age 20, having children soon after, buying a house at 30, having grandchildren at 50, and retiring around age 65.
This enabled economists and academics to organize societies in a way that most people could relate. But in the 1970s, those milestones started to change, with marriage and childbearing happening later in the U.S. Throw globalization into the mix and grouping people for demographic, academic or marketing purposes became less useful.
And some, like lawmakers Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez, see increasing wealth disparity rather than pages on a calendar as the root of conflict between younger and older.
In the 1980s, U.S. tax laws under President Ronald Reagan made it easier for people with money to keep it and shifted collective public burdens, like higher education and infrastructure, to individuals through fees and tolls.
And gaps in income and wealth between richer and poorer households continue to widen, states the Pew Research Center in Washington.
Upper-income families were the only ones able to expand their wealth from 2001 to 2016, adding 33% at the median, Pew reported in January 2020. At the same time, middle-income families saw their median net worth shrink by 20%. Lower-income families experienced a loss of 45%.
“Increasingly, life after age 65 in the U.S. is a ‘two worlds of aging’ experience, with the well-off older adults doing better and the less well-off part of the income distribution doing worse,” said Stephen Crystal, professor in the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research and the School of Social Work at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“Based on the economic experience… of people who are now in their middle years and will make up the future elderly, we can expect this problem to become worse, not better,” he said.
Senator Warren, a Baby Boomer, and Senator Sanders, who is actually older than the Boomers, say the inequities have to be addressed to enable all Americans to live with fewer financial burdens.
On March 1, Warren proposed the Ultra-Millionaire Tax Act to reduce wealth inequality. The act would impose a 3% annual tax on the net worth of households and trusts exceeding $1 billion, and 2% annual wealth tax on households and trusts ranging from $50 million to $1 billion. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle) and Representative Brendan Boyle (D-Pennsylvania) were co-sponsors.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) has also strongly supported the idea of a wealth tax. In 2019, she called for raising the tax rate to 70% on incomes over $10 million.
Ralph Sonenshine, assistant professor of economics at American University in Washington, says the global reach of today’s tech companies has a greater impact on the economy than age.
“Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were a generation before Mark Zuckerberg,” Sonenshine noted. “Microsoft for example went public in 1987 versus 2012 for Facebook. The growth of e-commerce and overall globalization enabled some companies and individuals to build fantastic amounts of wealth.”
So while the proposed wealth tax would fall on Boomers in their 70s and 80s, it would also impact people like Chad Richison, 49, who founded Paycom; Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder, 57; Tesla founder Elon Musk, 49; Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, 47; and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 37, all on lists of the world’s wealthiest people.
Higher taxes on wealth and income have opponents too, like Donald Boudreaux, chairman of the economics department at George Mason University in Virginia. He says tax cuts in the 1980s spurred wealth through hard work.
“I am actually a fan of Reagan’s tax cuts because one consequence of the tax cuts is that it allows productive people to keep more of what they produce,” said Boudreaux. “And so by encouraging people to work harder and longer, and by encouraging people to invest more, that increases wealth for everybody.”
Still, some see the country’s economic problems through a generational prism.
“I’m not a fan of baby boomers,” wrote Sean Illing in an online conversation with fellow millennial Helen Andrews, a senior editor at The American Conservative, who penned “Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.”
Andrews argued that millennials are imitating Boomers.
“At a certain point you have to stop blaming your parents and also stop blaming yourself, and just say, where do we go from here?” Andrews suggested. And her answer?
“If there’s hope, it lies with Gen X,” she said, referring to the age group sandwiched between Boomers and millennials, born 1965 to 1980. “So even though Gen X is aging now, we still have not yet seen all that they can do.”