In the past week, two words have made a splash.
It’s crossed over from TikTok and sub-Reddit memes (which Baby Boomers may not see) into “exposé” pieces in the world’s major newspapers and TV news – which Baby Boomers definitely see.
Last Tuesday, a 25-year-old member of the New Zealand parliament, Chlöe Swarbrick, was heckled by an older member as she delivered a speech on a huge concern for her generation, better climate policy: “In the year 2050, I will be 56 years old; yet, right now, the average age of this 52nd Parliament is 49 years old” – and at that moment, she was heckled.
Her brief retort made world-wide waves. “OK, Boomer.” And she kept right on.
“She was making a speech. She had the floor,” says Dr. Risa Applegarth, professor of rhetoric in UNCG’s Department of English. Applegarth’s upcoming book focuses on youth voices and youth activism.
A lot of times young people are charged with not showing proper respect, she says, noting the young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who repeatedly said, “How dare you!” to international leaders at the United Nations recently when criticizing the lack of urgency on climate change policy.
Applegarth looks at it as a scholar of rhetoric. “To say something is uncivil or something is ‘improper’ has gender and age dimensions.”
“I would ask: Who has the most power in this scenario? If ‘OK Boomer’ is understood as improper, how is the heckling that prompted it also understood? It enabled her to keep arguing in favor of her position – she wants to speak to all of Parliament. It prevented the heckler from taking the floor away from her.”
Maggie Murphy, an assistant professor and humanities librarian in University Libraries, has presented her memes research on campus and at conferences. She is a co-director of this year’s Uplifting Memes series at UNCG University Libraries. And she finds the “OK Boomer” meme remarkable because “it has an ‘analog presence’ and not just an internet one.”
“I have heard from my fellow Millennial colleagues who are high school teachers that ‘OK Boomer’ has been used as a retort in hallways and classrooms. It’s a really interesting example of a meme that is moving as sort of a viral cultural moment and not a visual image expression.”
Its first use on the internet was last January, and the sub-Reddit “r/teenagers” is where it really took off, she says.
“‘It’s an expression of exasperation at the people who have caused the problems they are refusing to deal with, in a very time-sensitive situation – the climate, nuclear weapons, etc.,” she says. And there’s a level of humor.
“I really like that the brevity of the retort speaks to the idea there isn’t a lot of time to deal with the issue.”
Speaking of little time … How long will this meme continue to be popular?
“It’s now a conversation touchstone,” Murphy notes. “Which is the quickest way to kill a meme.”
Learn more about the University Libraries’ “Uplifting Memes” series here.
By Mike Harris.
GIF visual from Giphy.