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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

With a touch of attitude, millennials take the torch

In New Zealand, 25-year-old member of Parliament Chloe

In New Zealand, 25-year-old member of Parliament Chloe Swarbrick didn't miss a beat. Swarbrick is seen here during the 2017 Green Party Conference at AUT Auckland on July 16, 2017. Credit: Getty Images/Phil Walter

In New Zealand, a 25-year-old member of Parliament was delivering an impassioned speech last week about the crisis that climate change poses for her generation when an older colleague began to heckle her about her age. Chloe Swarbrick didn't miss a beat.

"OK boomer," she said. 

And with her tormentor reduced to linguistic roadkill, Swarbrick went on speaking.

The moment became something of an internet sensation, delighting millennials 'round the world for whom "OK boomer" has been a viral meme but perhaps never wielded as effectively in public as it was by Swarbrick. Boomers quickly lodged accusations of ageism. Swarbrick later described the term as an expression of "collective exhaustion," and that seems about right. We can be exhausting.

"OK boomer" refers, of course, to baby boomers, perhaps humankind's most mythologized generation. I sit close to smack in the middle of the baby boomer arc, defined roughly as anyone born between mid-1946 and mid-1964.

Collectively, we have our pride. We're huge, nearly 80 million strong at our peak. We were the coveted demographic for years, the biggest block of voting and buying power. We've been driving changes in public policy, housing and the nation's median age since we came on the scene. We're now the most active older generation the world has seen. When people talk about the graying of America, that's us. No one can lament the passing of the good ol' days like us. No one quotes from "The Godfather" like us, or sings the songs of our youth like us. We have our opinions, and they're right. We can be insufferable.

Hence, OK boomer.

It has a genius dismissiveness, a condescending and not-so-gentle pat-on-the-head quality to it. I can recall us being similarly dismissive of The Man, the fuzz, anyone in authority, perhaps with even more of a contemptuous edge. But we never employed a put-down quite like "OK boomer." I'm envious.

The phrase is now a millennial cultural phenomenon. It shows up on T-shirts and hoodies, in class pictures and school notebooks, on cellphone cases and stickers, water bottles and greeting cards, and in countless TikTok videos (boomers, ask a millennial).

What it really heralds is a changing of the guard, and that can be messy. Millennials were projected to pass boomers in size at some point in 2019, 73 million to 72 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. It'll get only more lopsided from there.

Millennials blame us for a host of ills, and they have a point. I'm not sure I agree with the premise of a recent piece in The Atlantic titled "The Boomers Ruined Everything," but we've done some stuff. We're handing off to millennials a world in which more income than ever must be spent on rent, health insurance is so expensive many go without it, income inequality is at record highs, college debt is soaring, political partisanship is alienating, and climate change is looming. And now we boomers are going to put unprecedented strain on Social Security and Medicare.

Fighting back, boomers email me to complain that millennials are lazy, feel entitled, live at home with their parents, have a lousy work ethic. No one walks a mile to school anymore (I did, though not uphill both ways). If you're a boomer or a millennial, you know the list. But few millennials I know fit that bill.

Perhaps it won't surprise you that New Zealand's Parliament TV, clearly not run by millennials, captioned Swarbrick's utterance as, "OK, Berma."

Which has me worried. I haven't been zinged yet. But I know I'm going to flub the reply.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.