“OK boomer” – Because more Division Is What Is Needed

My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is remarkably useless way to behave.

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TikTok, in the event you have never heard of it, is a social media / video app that lets users make and share videos of three to fifteen seconds. It will also allow users to loop a video for up to sixty seconds. I have never used it and the only TikTok videos that I have seen are compilation videos posted on YouTube. As close as I can tell, it is very similar to Vine (which allows users to post videos that are slightly more than 6 seconds long). My reasons for not using TikTok, or Vine, have nothing to do with the app. My life just isn’t that interesting and I am not so connected to other people that I or they feel the need to share or consume small chunks of life. These are common feelings that are reported from many people who are a part of generation X and did not grow-up with the Internet. Maybe we are just not good at it, maybe we never learned to find these things rewarding, or maybe it is something else entirely.

Before my father died in 2012, I recall having a conversation with him about Twitter. Neither one of us had an account, I still don’t. I’m not proud of it, nor does it trigger any shame, I just don’t have a need for one. The key thing I remember from our chat was his feeling that it was kind of pointless because the character limit prevents the sharing of complete thoughts. There was a sense or concern that the compression of complex ideas into a sentence or two effectively ensured that misunderstanding was going to occur in nearly every case. He loved reading and consumed a massive amount of information over the course of his life. Paying attention, listening and hearing what people had to say, and asking clarifying questions was something that he was good at. He had seen a lot and had, over time, come to realize that many aspects of history tend to repeat themselves. The only thing to blame were the people directly involved and the people who did nothing to prevent the predictable outcome. “People are smart. We can be lazy though, and a lack of effort is very often the antidote to progress. Most of the answers are out there because so much of this has happened before, a few times before. We hit the iceberg when we choose to go with the feeling that we know as opposed to finding out if we actually do.”

Having been born in 1944, he had memories of rationing after the end of the Second World War as Europe took the time to rebuild from all the destruction. In fact, his brain was filled with memories of the Korean war, the Vietnam war, countless wars in the middle east, revolutions in south America, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the cold war, the space race, the creation and spread of personal computers, the Civil Rights movement, famines, natural disasters, too many musical trends to count, the cycles of fashion, economic booms, busts, and echoes, and more than 60 years of other things. In all of that he had come to accept that everything changes and almost everything repeats. The cast of characters will be different, but the events and the mistakes they make will be the same. Because of this, he had invited my brother and me to try and remain curious about what was actually going on and to be humble enough to be uncertain about the things we pretended to know with certainty. The challenge he had with Twitter was the lack of depth 140 characters allows. It was good for transmitting simple factual information, like a road closure or an approaching weather event, but it was just too limiting in terms of allowed text to clearly transmit anything more complicated than that. It was also hindered by the anonymous nature of being online. You were probably never going to know with certainty who was tweeting, and that opened the platform up to all of the antisocial behaviour associated with there being no real consequences for your words.

What was sort of funny about it was that he had a lot of respect of Jack Dorsey and the rest of the Twitter founders, and basically anyone who created an app, a platform, a social media site, or basically any legal IT thing. Even when their creations were not things that he would ever use, the fact that there were human beings using computers in new and interesting ways was something to admire. It didn’t matter if, in his view, it was pointless, it was still a very impressive thing to make something out of nothing. The fact that it was younger people doing it actually made him feel better. “It’s their world too so they have to make it the way they want it to be. I don’t have to like it, they do, because they are going to be around well after I move on.”

At the time, I didn’t think much about this approach. I accepted it as probably being true but most importantly I was happy enough to just live my life and not have to involve myself with having to control the actions of other people.

This was a powerful lesson that I wish all people taught their children. Each generation gets their chance to make the world the way they want, so as long as no one is killing, hurting or causing suffering in other human beings, it’s probably best to leave them at it to do their thing however they deem fit. Being alive is so complicated and the universe is so large that it is impossible to say that life has a singular purpose that is unchanging and shared by all living beings.

About 2 weeks before he died, I asked my dad what it was like to know that he wouldn’t be around soon and he replied with something very similar to what he said about twitter. “I know I’m supposed to be sad about it, but I’m having some trouble with that. I was always going to die, and I knew it, so I tried to have the best life possible. I enjoyed my childhood, I loved my parents and brothers (he had no sisters). I had fun. I got a job, met and married your mother, and raised you and your brother. There are no regrets. Sure I’d like more time, but all I have left is all I’m getting, so that’s not going to happen. It’s important for old people to get out of the way and let the younger people have their turn. Life has come-up with the perfect solution for any of us who are unwilling to move to a back seat and give the reins to the next generation. Death clears a path and I’m glad it does. It cleared one for my generation, and it will clear us out of the way for the next generation.”

There was something very sinister though. Not in his views but in the accuracy of what he was saying. He had seen what the 1960’s had been like and understood very well the damage that will be done when one group of people vilify another group of people for reasons that do not exist, as opposed to clearing the way the younger people to make the world they wanted. The older people had views that were not aligned with common decency or anything factual. As they dug in to resist change, the rest of the world rolled forward.

The most striking example was that of skin colour. Underlying racism is an automatic mental process that notices things that are similar or different, and which are the same as us superficially and which are different for this reason. The output of this noticing process becomes the input for other processes that are more narrative than binary, and they quickly begin to surface evidence to support the idea that a lack of sameness is an indication of material differences. When left unquestioned, this evidence is consolidated into reality and begins to be a “fact” vs. the output of some mental process.

My dad was exceptionally liberally minded in that he didn’t care to stop anyone from doing anything that wasn’t harming others or that all parties had consented to do. It was as though he believed that anyone who was 18 years old or more had the right to do whatever they wanted with their life, even if that to waste it. If someone made a mistake and owned it, he was a big fan of second chances because he knew full well that very little is what it seems and when people realize how things actually are, they make different decisions.

However, there is a limit to what human beings are able to experience and continue to be able change as they move forward. I’m not sure what this limit is exactly, like if it is an experience, a duration of exposure or reaching a particular age, but most people tend to change less as they get older. For example, the views I held when I was 15 are remarkable different from the views I held at 30. My views at 30 are much more similar to the views I hold today. I have never cared about a person’s race, in my late teens I shifted away from having opinions about sexual orientation. I was a fairly tolerant teenager, a very tolerant 30 year old, and an “uninvolved in other people’s business” 45 year old. If I had to guess about the one thing that will continue to shift as I move into my 60s it would be that I will remain a social liberal and will become more financially conservative in so far as I will become even more certain in my belief that a person needs to take responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Most people are not victims of anything other than not trying, not doing their best, or not taking the actions that are within their control to cause a better results. There is an element of luck in all of it, but too few generate any because their actions are weak, misguided, or non-existent.

I am a fair distance from the liberal thinker I was at 27 because I have endured the consequences that years of not acting strategically have served into my life. As much as I would like to blame other people, no one but me is responsible for these things. The benefit of this shift in thinking is that I now have the chance to improve things on my own, something that I started doing towards the end of my thirties.

This is a process that many people experience as they move their way thought life. When we are young, we have very little power, so we look around for people and things that have it. There are competence, prestige, and dominance hierarchies everywhere, and when we have a low place on all of them, we try to identify the higher-up so that we can get stuff from them. But the human brain is a remarkable thing, so if we work hard enough and for long enough on something, we will gain knowledge and wisdom that will move us higher. We may not see it initially because we spend the first 10-15 years of life being completely helpless and fully reliant on our parents or caregivers. We form an unconscious habit of believing that we are at the bottom of these hierarchies so any movement upwards will need to be perceived before it can impact the narrative story we tell our selves about the world and our place in it. This is a slow process and for many people it never gets much traction because that the powers that be are constantly conspire to keep them down.

All of this comes down to our DNA and the impact that experience plays in gene expression.

Some simple background in the form of a story. All life has a very complex program that has been written over millions of years that determine how life will unfold in terms of physiology – how we create blood cell, who our cells use oxygen, how we respond to pain, etc…. All of this information is stored in our DNA, and any grouping of related information that codes for something is called a gene. We have hundreds of thousands of genes and they determine everything about us. Some of them are stand alone, some of them are primarily stand-alone while being conditionally related to others, some of them do nothing on their own, while many do not appear to do anything at all.

Some of these genes will automatically express themselves while other will only express themselves in response to very specific experiences. NOTE – it is not the experience itself that triggers gene expression, it is triggered by the chemicals that are released by the body in response to specific experiences. This is a blessing for most living beings, and a mixed blessing for humans. While dogs and cats will enjoy the beneficial outcomes that real experience facilitates in terms of gene expression, human beings can cause gene expression through lived experiences OR through imagined experiences.

A great example of this is anxiety which is a universal emotion for all people. It seems that the reason we evolved to experience it is because it improves physical and mental performance when compared to our resting baseline. An elevated respiratory and heart rate improves blood flow to all cells priming the muscles for activity because of the increase of oxygen and energy. It also improves cerebral blood flow, which can enhance brain activity. These things are useful when peak performance will improve outcomes. A cold start tends to result in more injuries and delayed thinking. So the ability to experience a baseline level of anxiety provides a survival advantage.

Problems begin to take shape when an individual’s anxiety response is triggered too easily. While there are people who have an innate response that is on the higher end of the scale, this does not necessarily cause a problem. It is entirely possible that one of these people could live a completely normal life so long as they do not trigger too many releases OR they do not trigger the “enhanced anxiety” genes to express. IF these genes express themselves, even someone with lower end baseline levels can find themselves suffering from the symptoms excessive anxiety.

There are only three ways this can happen. The first is through repeated direct experience, the second is through repeated imagined experience, and the third is through a combination of the two others. Regardless of the source, once the enhanced anxiety genes become expressed, the individual is prone to unnecessary or excessive bouts of it.

Imagined experience is much easier for people to have, so with reference to anxiety, worry or uncertainty about anything are sufficient triggers. Given a long enough time frame, someone can condition anxiety to be their default state which will leave them suffering from a heightened state of physiological arousal that has no immediate catalyst.

Gene expression is permanent. Someone who activated the enhanced anxiety gene will ALWAYS have the ability to experience more anxiety than they did before. Relapse after years of remission is very common with anxiety disorders and often times there is no warning that something is about to happen.

The unique challenge with anxiety stems from how the body physiologically goes about causing it. When anxiety is triggered, chemicals are dumped into the blood stream and begin to impact on the cell for which there are receptors. There are hundreds of millions of these cells located throughout the entire body, and particularly within the brain. So just as muscle cells will begin to alter their functioning, brain cells will also alter their functioning. With small releases, the impact is usually enhance mental functioning. As the quantities increase, this beneficial effect will drop and very quickly begin to impair our ability to think. This can impact how the person perceives the source of the anxiety, allowing them to subjective react to something that is an objectively non-factor.

This is why being deeply in debt or reaching a state of insolvency lowers people’s performance on cognitive tests and why everyone who declares bankruptcy very quickly find their mood lifting and the restoration of their objectivity. The source of their chronic anxiety evaporates and while much about their future remains unknown, the darkest pieces of it are simply eliminated.

Take a moment to consider what actually happens when someone declares bankruptcy. A form is signed, you hand back or cut-up all of your credit cards, you lose access to any credit you did have, a 9 to 21 month process is started that sees your declaration sent to the credit rating agencies rendering you a high credit risk for 7 or more years. That is a lot of things happening, but when you look at each one in isolation, very little actually happens. In fact, almost nothing happens to you directly. You needed to sign a form and probably have a couple of meetings with a trustee, but other than a few clerical items – keeping and submitting a monthly budget, changing bank – the days leading up to the date you declare are nearly identical to the days leading away from it. If you are in a situation that frees you from having to borrow money and allows you to avoid having a credit review performed, there is only up-side. All of your debt is wiped off the books and this eliminates the source of your anxiety.

Think about that for a second. By signing a form, the source of your problems disappears. This means that the source of your problems was a lack of a signature on a form. Well, sort of. The source of your problems was an imagined future that has you unable to pay your bills and NOT the real experience of trying to pay them but not being able to. The problem was the version of the story you were experiencing and not the lived reality you were experiencing.

The take home here is that the experience of living the story is sufficient to serve as a trigger for gene expression in spite of the fact that what was really happening was not much of anything. And changing the story was enough to prevent an anxiety response. This is why the dogs and cats have an easier time with activating the best genes to help them survive their life than people do because the only genes that get expressed that wouldn’t have been expressed automatically are the ones that get expressed in response to REAL changes in the environment.

Bringing this back to the topic at hand, remember that once a gene has been expressed it will remain expressed and that any heightened response it may cause will be triggered by real and imagined things. But since most of what happens in modern life has no physical impact on us and therefore only occurs as an imagined event, anything we do that changes the story has the potential to alter a response. My movement towards the more liberal side of the social spectrum was caused by changes in the narrative and not by any hands on specific experiences. I stopped caring about sexual orientation when I realized just how hard life can be and how difficult it is find a source lasting joy. If two people find love in each other that is fantastic, and when they are left alone to enjoy it, the outcomes from all people improve slightly. The opposite is also true, when joy is denied from people, the outcomes for all people get slightly worse. My progressive mindset wasn’t progressive for the sake of being progressive, it was a reframing of things that just happened to have what seems like a progressive outcome. I still find it strange that two men can fall in love because I have never experienced it, but I no longer care about the genders of people who fall in love with each other. I know that people finding, falling and being in love is way better for society and for me specifically than making sure the world runs according to whatever I learned was normal when I was growing-up.

I think that maybe my dad had realized that there is a limit to what human beings are able to reframe and this was why he was so certain that old people needed to move on and make room for the next generation. We never chatted about why people close-off from reframing, and while I wish we had because my dad had some compelling and transformative ideas, it doesn’t change the fact of the matter. Very few people remain young in mind for the entirety of their life. Many close off very early on, and the rest move from being open and certain to closed and certain during the first 3 to 6 decades of their life. This I believe is why he was so willing to view the IT inventions as being remarkable and why we are more than happy to invite someone back to the table when they realized, admitted to, and made their best amends for taking action based on something they no longer believed.

So what?

Since life does not have a clearly defined purpose that all human beings share, the best we can hope for is that over time things will improve and that the amount of suffering that is experienced by people continues to fall. After that, who knows. We all live in the real world but we are all living out a different story. The story we tell and the meanings we put onto things, is going to be determined by our life experiences and these will, in a very real way, help to determine our future experiences; either through gene expression or the reframing of the story. The impossible will become possible the instant our story changes, and if it never changes the thing will remain impossible.

Older people know this because they have experienced it. Younger people may believe it, but having never experienced it, they are more likely to weigh their actual experiences more heavily. Younger people know a lot less than older people. In many ways this makes their living of life easier because they have a lot less stuff in their brains to consider, but this lack of information has the effect of presenting their experiences as being unique and everything that happens in the world as being completely new.

They are also struggling to move up the prestige and competency hierarchies, which are already stuffed full of people. It is very competitive and since it takes a very long time to generate prestige and competency, when being compared to people who have 20-40 years more experience, it can be very appealing to reframe the story and usurp a spot by removing some of those who are in the way. But the realness of these hierarchies is not sufficient enough to actually locate someone let alone physically remove them, so taking over someone’s spot is as easy and simple as reframing them as being in a different position or as not being on the hierarchy at all.

The most effective way to achieve this is to believe that what is going on is completely new and that NO ONE has any information that will make navigating it any easier. To this end, if someone is able to reframe an older person as having no more information than the younger person, they have neutralized them in terms of prestige, and if they then reframe them as being so far removed from the current social zeitgeist as to be unaffected by it, they have effectively kicked them off of the competency hierarchy. This will work out very well for them IF the thing is actually new, moderately well if the older people do not actually know something, and very badly when what is occurring is a part of the repeating nature of things. The reasons are simple, if it is new, a younger faster brain that is not bogged down by lots of experience will find solutions much faster, particularly if it doesn’t have to deal with the irrelevant musings of old people. If the old people do not know anything, the young people stand only to lose out if they spend anytime listening to them. But if what is occurring is actually the same thing that happened 35 years ago, shutting out the old people who have experience with it forces the remainder to solve the problems without the benefit of having access to the knowledge that has already been discovered.

The “okay boomer” phenomena is a clear indication that this is happening again. The 1960’s saying “never trust anyone over 30” has been rebranded and launched into the minds of next generation. It is a pejorative that a younger person will say to an older person in an attempt to dismiss their point of view because it came from someone who doesn’t know anything about how things are now and who is probably responsible for why things are so bad. It’s a power grab of sorts because it tells someone that they are too old and too ignorant to provide anything of value to the discussion while simultaneously placing the person who says it above them in a number of hierarchies.

Saying it is rude. Dismissing something out of hand with no evaluation is short sighted. Shoe-horning yourself into a higher position is a non-accomplishment.

And yet saying it is very effective because it hurts to hear. The emotional reaction to being dismissed is primal and automatic. It lands like pain. It’s no good and by the time you notice how you feel about it, the reaction is already well established. Now you have to deal with someone calling you old. It is a lot to handle and the energy that is building in your body would be released if you could just attack. You can’t, so how are you going to deal with it?

The thing is this, NO human being likes to be dismissed. Even when they have nothing to add or contribute, the act of remaining connected to the group or a person is at least slightly rewarding. Having someone else sever this tie on you removes this reward and the sense of alienation and worthlessness that accompany being pushed away hit you like a punishing blow.

Everything I am saying here applies equally to ANYONE who uses any tactic of dismissal to reduce the force or silence other people. And in a way, I can understand why some millennial or generation Z members direct “okay boomer” towards older people. What have they had to listen to being directed towards them?

A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of my friends about her job, and she mentioned that there are a lot of clueless people in positions of power and influence, who cannot seem to make a good decision to save their jobs. This women is bright. She thinks faster than nearly everyone I have ever met, she sees connection between things that seem completely unrelated, and she has a very clear understanding of what is going on inside the heads of the people she is talking to. She kind of scares the crap out me because she’s fine with being wrong, making mistakes, admitting to them, and learning the proper way to handle the situation next time. There is no arrogance and she is kind to everyone, until they give her a reason to not be.

In this particular conversation, she was relating to me how her boss had responded to one of her concerns about a process change by saying “oh you millennials, you’re all so keen to point out what can go wrong. Such a sense of entitlement, like you expect everything to be perfect” before discarding her suggestion and chastising her. When I replied with “oh, that’s rude” followed by “but they pay you to point out what could go wrong” she took off.

“I’m f’ing glad he said it Pat. He SHOULDN’T need me to identify the stupid things he does, and he clearly doesn’t WANT me to. Throwing me into a bucket based on when I was born and suggesting that all those people have a sense of entitlement actually works better for me. We’re not partners anymore, we’re not aligned. He’s an ageist knob who now gets to drive his career into a brick wall. I’ve been dismissed, he gets no more of my help.”

He was fired less than three months later for screwing-up the very thing she was trying to help him with.

If she had said “okay boomer” to him, I would have understood it and I would only fault her if the reply was a reaction vs. a response. But she said nothing to him in spite of the fact the interaction annoyed the hell out of her. She was less offended that a simpleton had said something stupid than she was that he dismissed her outright because of some story he tells himself about all people her age.

This is where I struggle with “okay boomer.” On one hand I can understand someone wanting and feeling that they need to say it to someone, particularly if that person has a track record of saying “millennials are lazy” or “millennials don’t want to earn their place” or any variation of the same theme. But on the other hand, meeting rudeness with rudeness is a kind of biblical vengeance that makes me question the righteousness of the responding party after having determined that the instigator is unable to address the material concern and is therefore going after the person for things they cannot control and which do not make any difference.

My problem with it is that it causes further division between people and it risks triggering people from one group to line-up across from the other group to battle it out in equally childish and unproductive ways. “I don’t listen to boomers” or “I don’t listen to millennials” is a remarkably unhelpful attitude simply because not listening to other people is remarkably useless way to behave.

My friends’ response was perfect. She vented out whatever negative emotion that was created and journeyed forward honoring the belief system that her boss possessed and made clear to her – if all millennials are that way, best they don’t bother you with it anymore. She continued to listen to him until he was fired because she had a lot to learn about how not to do the job. So even though he had dismissed her, she had not dismissed him. What he knew was still valuable because it was knowledge, even if some of his beliefs were out of line. She had no desire to make the same mistakes he did so continuing to pay attention to him was only going to make her future easier.

If you were to take only one thing out of this post it would be to always remember that when we have not lived through history, our decision to ignore those who have will guarantee that we get to.