“OK Boomer” Blows the Lid off Age-Based Identity Politics

I finally got around to watching the “Ok Boomer” clip after having read about it over the past week.  Actually witnessing the moment for myself instead of merely reading the words, what struck me the most is the casualness of the utterance made by New Zealand Member of Parliament Chlöe Swarbrick in response to an older heckler as she advocated for a climate change bill.  It’s as if the Boomer/Millennial divide, and by extension the explicit employment of age in politics, became a commonplace reality while I wasn’t looking.

Age is one of the aspects of identity politics that is often overlooked despite being immensely important.  Age occupies a unique place among other identity groups. Since the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, age has been a protected class in the United States – among other things, employers generally cannot refuse to hire adults based on their age, nor can they enact mandatory retirement ages. More important for politics in the US, eligibility for Social Security and Medicaid, two entitlement programs that together take up around 40% of the federal budget, is mainly based on age.  Access to trillions of dollars of government transfers creates a pretty powerful and dedicated constituency; there’s a reason that older people vote, and it’s not just because they don’t have anything better to do.

On the other hand, age discrimination is also a common, and in many cases practical, part of society.  At a basic level, there are various restrictions placing lower limits on citizens’ ability to vote, drink alcohol, and make decisions about their education and even their own bodies, and while there can be quibbles about where to draw the line (18 vs. 21, for example), it’s clear that some line needs to be drawn for children who are not equipped to make such decisions for themselves.

Beyond that, though, even age discrimination for adults is embedded in the US Constitution.  There are explicit minimum age requirements for election to the House of Representatives, Senate and Presidency (25, 30 and 35, respectively). Think about that – the Constitution surprisingly did not make restrictions on the basis of sex (women’s suffrage was a state-wide issue until it was enshrined in the Constitution 100 years ago). The document is even surprisingly hesitant and uncomfortable when it comes to race (“euphemisms like “all other persons” substituting for “slaves”, for example), and those very problematic passages have now been rendered moot by the post-Civil War amendments.  But age remains a criteria for which explicit discrimination is accepted.

Anti-discrimination measures usually protect individuals from discrimination based on their membership in groups that cannot be change (or at least not easily so), or that make up some important part of their identity: race, sex, religion, ability, and so on.  Age is unique in that, barring death, individuals are guaranteed to transition from one age category to another throughout their lives.  If you look at, say, Joe Biden, his age has been significant to his political profile in very different ways: he was one of the youngest Senators ever elected; should he win the Democratic nomination and then the general election in 2020, he would be the oldest President ever elected.

And that old joke that Winston Churchill didn’t actually tell –“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain” – speaks to the changing political beliefs and affiliations that come with those changes in chronology. Those political transitions are not absolute – generational effects also play a large role, with the political situation during one’s formative years playing a significant role in their political opinions throughout life – but the changing incentives as one ages have a large impact on age identity and political attitudes.

Additionally, with regards to other protected classes, it’s usually clear who are the oppressed or discriminated-against: racial minorities, women, and so on – and who have the power and influence (for the sake of argument, let’s call them white, straight, Christian, able-bodied men) When it comes to age, however, it’s different.  Age discrimination laws are generally meant to protect the elderly from exclusion or discrimination, and yet it’s also older people (or more precisely, a segment of them) who wield the most power in society.

The contradiction isn’t that hard to resolve: if you’re otherwise privileged (by being wealthy, as well as white, male, etc.), that privilege tends to grow with age as you’re able to amass influence and build connections that you can leverage to enforce your will on society.  If you start out at a disadvantage (and yes, even straight white men can be disadvantaged economically and otherwise), you’re probably going to have a rough time as you get older.  Age cuts across other social identities and the combinations to create a constellation of power arrangements; in other words, intersectionality is real, y’all.

Meanwhile, the young, and even the under-18 year olds, are becoming increasingly politically active.  This last group is significant because these are individuals who, for obvious developmental and legal reasons, are extremely limited in their formal political powers.  And yet, they find themselves mobilizing as they face a host of issues that disproportionately affect them.  In the US, a group of brave survivors of mass violence like the Parkland school shooting and endemic violence like that in Chicago and other cities have taken the lead in advocating for gun control reform.  In the UK, the results of Brexit, which will have a long-term impact on current youth who are generally very positive about the European Union, is motivating a call to lower the voting age (had 16 and 17 year olds been able to vote, the UK might still have been part of the EU next year). And young people around the world, like Greta Thunberg, are increasingly concerned about climate change, aware that the pollution of their parents and grandparents will leave them with a planet that is literally less inhabitable than it was a generation or two ago.

These different age-based constituencies are starting to coalesce, not just around individual issues, but around the labels that have been placed on their generations: Baby Boomers, Millennials, Generations X through Z (I’m really hoping we start going for symbols – I nominate Generation@ as the next group).  And so we get to “Ok Boomer” which has elicited outrage from some Baby Boomers and amused curiosity from the general public. (Oh, and if we’re playing the “xxxx” is the n-word of XXXX “ game, then boomer, while dismissive, is not “the n-word of ageism”; “boomer” is the n-word of terms that are not at all like the n-word; let’s keep some perspective).

Nevertheless, “Boomers vs. Millennials” is shaping up as a recognized divide in competition for political power, policies, jobs, name-calling and mutually-dismissive attitudes towards one another. Age-based political divides are unlikely to supersede the many other divisions we already have (racism and sexism, religious differences and homophobia are pretty far ahead of ageism in the oppression marathon), but the explicit political activation of age-based groups shows how our political understandings are becoming increasingly complex and explicitly identity-based.

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