The companion to the Student Social Media Academy:

OK Higher Ed – We need to talk about "OK Boomer"

Contributors

Kids these days” — an all too common phrase uttered by older generations. But today, Gen Z isn’t having it. They have coined their own term, “OK Boomer.”

Before we dive into all the deets of this recent viral Internet phrase, let’s step back and provide a little bit of generational knowledge. 

By definition, a generation is a group of people who were generally born around the same time in history. In Generation Z: A Century in the Making authors Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace use the following definition of a generation: “the entire body of individuals born and living about the same time.” 

Generations are made up of 14-20 years in common life stages:

  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • Generation X (1965-1979)
  • Millennials (1980-1994)
  • Generation Z (1995-2010)

These terms have also grown to not just indicate when someone was born but also as what Nicole Spector, writer for the New Yorker, Vice, and NBC defines as a “blanket term referencing the predominant trends, values, and concerns of an entire generation.” 

There has always been animosity between the older generations and younger generations. Generally, a lot of “back in my day” rhetoric from older generations like Baby Boomers and “they don’t get it” from Millennials and Gen Z. But, things hit the fan when a TikTok video went viral of a teenager responding to an angry rant from an older man using the phrase “Ok, Boomer.” 

Soon after, a college student at Champlain College, Peter Kuli, sitting in his residence hall created the remixed song that has gone viral and is now the soundtrack for the movement. The internet went wild with more TikTok reactions, hashtags, and even apparel. Companies are racing to trademark the phrase. One of those companies being Fox with the hopes of creating a TV show using the expression.

In this post, you’ll get a background of OK Boomer, especially through the lens of those that work in the field of higher education, and how college and university professionals can forge intergenerational connections – whether it’s online or on campus.

What does ‘OK Boomer’ really mean?

So far “Ok, Boomer” has been used in response to a person judging a Millenial or Gen Z person on their life choices or in interactions of disagreement. From career to relationships to gender identity. “Ok, Boomer” is a phrase of frustration and exhaustion from having to constantly explain life choices to a generation that doesn’t understand – they’re living in a different world. 

Meg Sunga, Higher Ed professional and Digital Education Creator at Presence, noted that “rather than wasting my time or energy explaining the myriad of social justice issues that I care about to someone who clearly does not care, ok boomer is an easy way to respond. I’m all about civil discourse and teachable moments—but it’s also important to pick your battles.”

However, the Boomer generation don’t see it that way. Boomers have responded loudly, declaring the phrase as an ageist, dismissive attitude of entitlement – some have even called it a slur, and they’re retaliating. Most of which is happening online, meeting Gen Z right where they are. 

Taylor Lorenz, New York Times writer, received an inbox full of backlash from readers after her popular article on the matter, ‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations. 

Formal statements from organizations representing seniored members have chimed in, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) executive, Myrna Blyth, in an interview responded, “OK, millennials. But we’re the people that actually have the money.” That of course didn’t go over well.

But other authors have argued it’s not about age, it’s about a mindset. It’s about “economic anxiety, the threat of environmental collapse, and people resisting change,” according to Vox writer Aja Romano who says “it’s more complicated than memes.” Romano writes feel like Baby Boomers created the problem and aren’t willing to help it, or even listen to younger generations who want to help it.

Listening – hint hint. 

Generational Tensions

At its core, “OK Boomer” is about social, economic, and environmental justice. It’s about a younger generation feeling too exhausted by their circumstances to explain yet again to the older people in their lives that things aren’t only different than they were a few decades ago, they’re worse in many ways.

The “OK Boomer” phenomenon is fascinating because it goes so much deeper than the typical adolescent eye-roll. It means more than just “Ugh. You old people don’t get it.” Rather, the social context in which it arose lends layers of complexity to the expression. 

In this environment, a phrase like “OK Boomer,” which draws a definitive line between the actions of an elder generation and the experiences of its younger counterparts, is inherently political. And wherever politics are involved, there is inevitably tension.

All of this comes on the heels of massive nation-wide activist movements like Me Too, March for Our Lives, Greta Thunberg’s campaign against climate change, Black Lives Matter, and others—which have been spearheaded by the younger generations and prompted highly publicized debate. 

Reniqua Allen-Lamphere from the Washington Post, believes that we’ve already been here. Millenials and Gen Z have always been fed-up, and “Ok, Boomer” is not the rallying cry for the generation – Black Lives Matter is.

Reniqua states, “It wasn’t just a sly phrase to show the grown-ups that we were mad; it told the world that we would fight for equality” – bringing up the black bodies that have been killed and the marches and protests that came after. Simply put, “it’s not fair to say that young Americans finally have found their rallying cry, since so many young people of color have already been crying out loud for years.” 

Shakivla Todd, social media manager adds that “Ok, Boomer” content isn’t the only movement that’s taking over TikTok and other digital spaces – and TikTok is proving itself to not just be a place for challenges and dance moves.

For example, Gem, TikTok content creator and activist, says, “the revolution will be tiktok’d.” They’ve recently received an avalanche of attention for their unapologetic, in your face politically and socially charged TikTok videos – and it’s great. Gem is schooling us on topics from queerness to capitalism. Gem currently has over 10,000 followers and around 240,000 likes, and those numbers are growing by the day considering their content was just shared by trans actress, Indya Moore. One of their most recent videos celebrating the work it takes to maintain polyamorous relationships has received over 46,000 views. 

While Gem is posting absolutely serious and critical narratives, they add a comedic twist to it. Gem’s content is ready to be memed, reshared, and spread to growing audiences.

All generations need to acknowledge and recognize that there is more going on behind the screen of digital media. That in some cases it has been shown to be a valid source of advocacy, activism, and empowerment. 

Tensions between generations is not new, nor is youth advocacy for change – but the medium for activism surely is. These same tensions can be felt on college campuses. 

Ok Boomer and Higher Education

As you can see, plenty has been covered about this topic – but surprisingly none have been written by and for higher education professionals.

Colleges and universities see extremities, from tenured faculty and campus executives most likely reaching into older generations, who serve predominantly younger generations, both as students and younger staff and faculty. We see different generations all over campus and online communities. We hope this post opens up conversations online and off. 

So, this is why I invited three additional writers to contribute to this piece – a generational researcher, a higher ed marketer and a former student affairs professional/social media marketer.

Marketing and Communications

Why so much marketing? Higher ed marketers are at the forefront of digital communities and internet culture, which Danielle Sewell reflected more on:

“OK Boomer” creates a fine line for communicators in higher education, who must be mindful of a variety of audiences, including current students, prospective students, parents, community members, alumni of all ages, and also the institution’s own faculty and staff. Trying to craft messaging that keeps all of these people content is a near-impossible task—and professionals in marketing and communications offices are feeling the stress.”

While speaking with communications colleagues from a variety of institutions about “OK Boomer,” I found that their overwhelming reaction is one of fear. They’re afraid to attempt tapping into the trend, to mention the phrase too openly in public forums, or even to discuss it in-depth with their administrators. The liability risk is hugely intimidating, both in terms of potential age discrimination lawsuits and their individual careers. 

So for many marketing and communications pros, it’s easy to feel like the best bet is to simply ignore “OK Boomer,” and communicate around the issue until the trend dies down. Those two little words have created a complicated issue.

Student Affairs & Enrollment Management

Aside from marketing, Student Affairs and Enrollment are other major areas on campus that are significantly impacted, influenced and interactive with a multitude of generations.

As students are early adopters to new technologies and social media, many entry-level/new student affairs professionals are first to observe their interest and behavior on platforms. Residence life staff may observe hall floors creating a TikTok in the lounge, or a student YouTuber may be creating vlogs in their highly decorated room. How can this information get over to Marketing? Enrollment counselors traveling around the globe, cultivating relationships with high school students and parents, have a unique crystal ball for understanding this generation. How can these insights be passed on to First Year Programs as they create their programming calendar?

Are you giving your colleagues across campus a voice to share what they are observing and experiencing? This is particularly important when it comes to younger professionals, who hold a unique position – still being seen as relatable to traditional-aged college students. They may have the most up-to-date and direct knowledge of Gen Z on your campus. 

A Call to Campus Executives

On the other end of the spectrum, campus executives have been overly scheduled for far too long, in board meetings, retreats, and travel engagements. That means spending less time with younger generations – including future students, current students, and less seasoned staff and faculty. The layers of hierarchy in higher education have carved blocks between intergenerational connections and collaborations.

The internet breaks these blocks apart. Gen Z will tweet or DM you in a heartbeat. Some professionals may define this behavior as disrespectful. But what if they’re really just being resourceful? A lot of campus executives and senior leaders are discouraged by this access, and that frustration may create even more distance between them and younger audiences. Instead, executives often rely on data (which in theory is fantastic) to guide decision-making and to “know” students. 

“OK Boomer,” when applied in a higher education setting, is a reminder that we cannot hide behind executive suites, nameplates, or data summaries. If you aren’t spending time – quality time with genuine dialogue – with younger students, employees and community members, this is problematic. This is what turns into dissonance and distrust. It leads to “OK Boomer.” 

Ok, Higher Education?

“The quickest way to get Ok Boomer-ed is by shutting down opportunities for younger generations to contribute, provide feedback, and be a part of the process.”

Meghan Grace, Gen Z Researcher and Author 

Are you opening up lines for dialogue with Gen Z, or creating more distance from them?

We would be interested to see a brainstorm about how higher education communicators, student affairs and enrollment professionals, and academics might collaborate to facilitate dialogue, support intergenerational healing, and discuss real solutions to some of these issues that plague both the younger and older generations. We believe this should happen in all types of spaces, on-campus and online. Are you willing? 

Because let’s face it. “OK Boomer” was never really the problem.

Calling for Intergenerational Connection – On and Offline

How can we look past the surface-level insult of “OK Boomer” and talk about the underlying concerns being expressed. How can we teach students about advocacy? About the pros and cons of polarizing language? How can we help them do better, and how can we do better teaching them to function in a challenging future?

The truth of the matter is, we need each other. 

We think this is a perfect time to start having honest conversations, and digital platforms are certainly a great place to start. The “Ok, Boomer” message has sparked a space to talk about the issues that divide the generations – like the climate crisis, student debt, economic stability, and much more. We’re all missing pieces to the puzzle. To solve the puzzle, we have to work together across age groups. Stopping to recognize your (and your generation’s) strengths,  along with the potential contributions of other generations, allows opportunity for more productive conversations. 

Meghan Grace, the co-author to Generation Z Goes to College and Generation Z: A Century in the Making provided some insight into Gen Z:

“We’ve seen in our research is that Generation Z wants to have the opportunity to contribute their skills, opinions, and leadership abilities. They gravitate towards interpersonal styles that focus on getting things accomplished and have a desire to help others and solve problems. If older generations are quick to shut them down, we waste an opportunity to engage a passionate and energized cohort of young leaders while also creating disdain between generations. They aren’t asking to run the whole show, but at least have space to chime in.”

While digital settings can be an environment to spark conversation, learn, and contribute, some of the issues that are motivating “OK Boomer” or “Kids these days…” responses could benefit most from an in-person, offline conversation. Our impulse to lash out at or disengage from a member of a different generation for not understanding our perspective is a likely indicator that there is an opportunity to have a real face-to-face discussion about our emotions that surround it. 

In some cases, stepping away from the easy-to-send comment box and into the real and sometimes difficult conversations is what is needed to build true human connections across generations. It’s so easy to get sucked into a comment war online that we forget the real people behind the usernames and profile pictures. 

And while younger generations may default to communicating through digital mediums, Generation Z actually places value in being able to have important conversations face-to-face.

In fact, Seemiller and Grace find that Generation Z prefers in-person and face-to-face communication (including video chatting) is more preferred than texting, messaging, phone calls, or emails. 

According to multigenerational workplace consultant, Lindsey Pollak, “members of all generations mostly want the same things from life—personal achievement, fulfilling relationships, financial security, and control over our choices.” Lindsey shares just a few action steps to begin to bridge the generational divide:

  • “If you are a Millennial or Gen Z who is about to say or retweet “OK Boomer,” instead go register yourself or a peer to vote, or even volunteer for the campaign of a candidate whose views you support.”
  • “If you are a Baby Boomer or anyone else offended by “OK Boomer,” use that feeling as a reminder to stop shaming, blaming and complaining about millennials and Gen Zs.”
    • Take on a mentee at your company.
    • Spend some time with your younger relatives. 

Bridging the Digital Generational Divide

So if ‘Ok boomer is dividing generations, as various authors document – what is our best chance to bridge the divide? We’d like to share a few considerations with technology and also have conversations completely without technology. 

  • Keep talking…and listening. Share your thoughts using popular and relevant hashtags. Interact with other folks. Ask questions. 
  • Don’t generalize. Share your personal stories and experiences.
  • Avoid stereotyping. The generational warfare has gone both directions from “Ok, Boomer” to “Millennials are ruining XYZ.” These are not productive conversation-starters.
  • Seek out a digital mentor from a younger generation than you. This could be your 14-year-old niece or younger staff members. Seek out insight and ask them questions about digital that you might not to your peers. 
  • Stay Engaged. Share content that is accessible and digestible by all generations.
  • Ask Questions. If you don’t understand a trend or post that has gone viral, ask a trusted member of the generation represents. This can provide an authentic way to gain information and helps you avoid making assumptions. For example, when you don’t understand a meme or viral moment, instead of sounding off in the comments, ask someone you know personally to explain and help you understand.
  • Create your digital terms and conditions, especially via direct messenger. If you aren’t replying or open to direct messaging platforms, what means are clearly being communicated to your community where you are? Note – direct messaging communication will soon not be an option to ignore. Get ready to create a plan/strategy now.
  • Quality Time. Look at your calendar to review and reflect on who you are/are not spending time with. Schedule in physical and digital time.

Here’s to opening up the conversation, listening and learning from each other.

What do you think? Here are some reactions and ideas from a few Millenials and Gen Z’ers on the popular youtube channel FBE.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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