“Why don’t we just let them die?”
I have heard this a lot when talking about the Coronavirus, when the subject of Boomers comes up (those born roughly from 1946 to 1964).
When a group of young people chats over Zoom, Facebook, or Teams about the direction of this disease, someone will often half-jokingly bring up this point. They will claim that the disease impacts older adults more severely, which, statistically, is the group more likely to deny climate change and doubt wealth inequality.
This logic is, of course, untrue. The disease does affect more people than just the elderly, and even if it were true, that perverted logic would still be condemning millions of people’s loved ones — people you and I both love — to die. It would be wrong under any circumstance to condemn millions to perish.
Despite the vileness of this argument, however, I can empathize with it sometimes.
There was a neighbor (let’s call her Mary) who I would visit every other day during my teenage years. Her husband had died over a decade before I started visiting with her. She was retired, and very lonely. I would go over to her house and listen to her talk for hours at a time as we debated everything from classic literature to the ethicality of war reenactments.
Mary was also terribly racist. She would go on and on about anchor babies and FOX News. I would sometimes try to politely push back against her mindset, but this would lead to loud disagreements where I would storm out of her crowded living room in a huff. I didn’t feel like having that fight on most days, and sometimes I resigned myself to listening to her hatred.
I gave up.
The dislike of the elderly has always existed, but, increasingly, intergenerational hatred has come to represent more than mere angst. The young view Boomers as the people responsible for destroying the world, and for many, that hatred is metastasizing into an alarming indifference. It’s not that Millenials and Generation Zers are gathering their pitchforks to assemble a Logan’s Run utopia.
They’ve simply stopped caring, and that should scare the Boomers far more than any memes calling for their removal. Boomers are entering a world that, sadly, has learned to stop caring about them as an act of mental survival.
“Boomer” is as much a part of a mythos as it is a technical categorization. The term is used to describe not only an age group, but an emotional reality that many younger people feel about their elders in power — that they don’t give a f*ck.
For me, one of the best examples of this metaphor comes from the 2019 movie Jumanji 2: The Next Level. The comedy is about teenagers being transported inside a magical video game that they have to complete to leave. They inhabit the bodies of generic video game characters, and if they die in the game, then they die for real.
The sequel ups the ante by forcing the teenagers to bring two old geezers with them — Edward ‘Eddie’ Gilpin (Danny DeVito) and Milo Walker (Danny Glover). The olds have no idea how video games work. Eddie, in particular, is extraordinarily stubborn, and he just so happens to be inside the body of the game’s strongest character. Eddie nearly kills everyone by foolishly thinking he knows best. He cannot be beaten. He has no comprehension of how powerful he is, and he refuses to listen to the younger gamers who know more than him.
He’s such a Boomer.
There are other representations in media as well. Emperor Palpatine in The Rise Of Skywalker (2019) is a relic from another age who manipulates things behind the scenes so that his vision of the Galaxy will flourish. The protagonists fighting against him are played mainly by younger, more diverse Millenials. The Emperor is a vestige of another age who needs to be pushed aside for the Galaxy to heal.
For better and worse, these are many people’s mental models for Baby Boomers: self-destructive tyrants who hold a lot of relative power and refuse to change. They are the shouters of racist things; hoarders of wealth; destroyers of the environment; invalidators of gender identity; and explainers of things. “Boomer” hits all of these intersections, and, as younger people become older and more powerful, they are starting to have enough of it.
The most prominent anti-Boomer response came in mid-November of 2019 with the meme “Okay Boomer.” It started on the social media site Tik Tok (but really 4chan) when an older person was ranting about young people having Peter Pan Syndrome. This is a common trend among some of the elderly where they complain that “kids these days” just don’t get the things.
This time, though, the world did not respond with resignation, but with anger. Tik Tok’s far younger audience roasted the man with the short and straightforward “Okay Boomer.” The retort was dismissing the man for being out of touch, but it quickly went viral and even became the inspiration for a sort of passable song.
The meme’s virality across the Internet meant that editorials spent a quick week analyzing the significance of the comment. Some decried it as the first shot fired in an intergenerational war. Others thought it was a slur, including Chief Justice John Roberts. One New Zealand politician capitalized on the moment to use it against one of her opponents during a debate on environmental legislation. The Atlantic, that “engine of culture” that all the young people rely on, then published an obituary to Okay Boomer before society went on to fixate on half the world being on fire.
“Okay, Boomer” is not really about a battle of the generations, though. No one is flooding Ted Danson’s Twitter mentions telling him he’s out of touch (not yet anyway). It’s about the resentment of the powerful. The meme is about walking away from a conversation where your interlocutor has been punching you in the face the entire time and refuses to recognize they’ve been doing it. As Vox writer Aja Romano wrote on the meme in November of 2019:
“Whether it’s justified or not, boomers are largely perceived as resistant to progressive change. In 2016, boomers were more likely to vote for conservative options like Brexit and Donald Trump than younger voters; statistically, boomers are less concerned about climate change than younger generations. And even after overseeing decades of financial prosperity that’s arguably wrecked the economic future for decades to come, the richest baby boomers continue to amass wealth for themselves in the face of debilitating economic inequality.”
From this perspective, “Boomers” is a shorthand for the predators of the world who passively watch it all burn down because the destruction makes them slightly richer. They are the people who see the problems in society — climate change, mass shootings, wealth inequality, Nazis, etc. — and gaslight you into thinking they are not real.
“It’s not predatory capitalism killing the planet,” they chide, “It’s Millenials not buying napkins.”
This strategy worked for a while. There was a half-decade of think pieces from websites such as Forbes and Business Insider that gleefully blamed Millenials for killing napkins and casual dining, but this strategy also created an entire generation of people bitter and resentful of being ignored. As user Lil’ Drip Drop quipped on Twitter in March of 2015:
“If I had a dollar for every time a BabyBoomer complained about my generation, I’d have enough money to buy a house in the market they ruined.”
Tired, burnt-out Millenials are now starting to obtain power, and what has emerged is not hatred, but frustrated indifference. Many members of my generation are beginning to view their parents as petulant children that need a timeout.
The TikTok Boomer who “started” this great intergenerational war lambasted young people for having Peter Pan syndrome, or “not wanting to grow up.” Yet, you don’t have to stray too far from the world of Never Never Land to find a character who perfectly encapsulates how millennials and Gen Zers view the archetypical Boomer: Captain Hook.
James Hook is a pirate in Neverland, and one of Peter Pan’s chief antagonists. He is best represented in the 1953 Disney version — a movie that many Boomers would have watched during their “youths.” In the film, Hook lives in perpetual fear of the ticking crocodile who swallowed up his left hand.
Metaphorically, many have argued that the crocodile represents the inevitable passage of time, and consequently, death, which is something Hook desperately wants to escape. His resentment of Peter Pan can be seen as him coveting the boy’s youth in a fleeting attempt to escape death.
We can see a real-world version of this sentiment in how many Millenials blame “Boomers” for restructuring entitlements over the last forty years to personally enrich themselves. It’s a common complaint from Millenials that older generations could afford more substantial expenses such as college and housing, while younger ones cannot. These claims are usually in response to “Millenial bashing,” where a privileged Boomer writes a clueless hot take that riles up intergenerational fury on Twitter by claiming that Millenials are lazy.
The truth of the matter, however, is that some amount of hoarding has happened. Not all Boomers benefited from the economic restructuring that followed the Reagan Revolution — it tended to help whiter people with property more. They have, however, generally speaking, accumulated more resources than Millenials did at their age. There has been a categorical rise in housing, education, and healthcare costs, which has made a more difficult world for everybody. As Joe Valenti wrote of the rising price of college in a 2019 report for the AARP Public Policy Institute:
“The cost of college has increased dramatically in recent decades while the potential benefits of higher education have also grown. As these costs have increased, the burden on students and parents has become larger, leading to greater borrowing for higher education. In the long run, this increase in student debt — approaching $1.5 trillion at the end of 2018 — may have implications on future retirement security in the years to come for both today’s and tomorrow’s borrowers.”
This resource gap is a societal failure. Yet because a vocal minority of Boomers has ignored this fact to demonize young people’s alleged moral failings instead, the Boomer label has become a pejorative aimed at “upholders of the status quo.” Younger people have consequently cast wealth inequality and climate change as generational issues.
“Climate change is the deadliest legacy we will leave the young,” writes John Lanchester in The Guardian.
“Should Millenials Blame Boomers For Economic Woes? A New Book Says Yes,” asks Paul W. Gleason from Pacific Standard Magazine.
“New Climate Analysis Shows How Badly Boomers Screwed Their Grandchildren,” remarks Brian Kahn in Gizmodo.
As we can see, a competing narrative has started to emerge that places the blame of our decaying world on the negligence of the elderly. Several months before Coronavirus hit, the site CollegeHumor released a joke video called “Do We Really Need Boomers?” The video is about a pair of scientists debating the merits of curing a disease that only kills Boomers.
DOCTOR ONE: So you are saying this virus will only affect those between the ages of 55 and 75.
DOCTOR TWO: That’s what it looks like. Truly, terrible. (doubtful voice) Right?
DOCTOR ONE: Yes that’s a lot of people…who own a lot of property.
Little did the creators of this video know that seven months later, that reality would become far more tangible. The Coronavirus — although not exclusively a disease that targets the elderly — does affect Boomers at higher rates. As the Coronavirus threat grew, there was a very similar catharsis about letting the situation play itself out. The meme Boomer Remover briefly circulated the Internet (though the backlash to it was far more pronounced than the meme itself), and conversations started to circulate that maybe this disease was not so bad after all.
These jabs, though, are mostly the frustrated catharsis of an overworn generation. There has been a lot of ink spilled over the growing generational divide, but outside the fringes of Reddit and 4chan, there is not a huge call to exterminate the elderly. There is an “I Hate The Elderly” playlist on Spotify right now (the only one of its kind that I can see), and it has a total of four likes.
The Boomer purge has not happened, and it’s not going to either; we can barely get universal healthcare passed. Millennials and Zers are too tired, too overwhelmed with the weight of the world on their shoulders to orchestrate a bloody revolution against the elderly. As Anne Helen Petersen wrote in their prolific essay ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’:
“[Burnout is] the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”
Coupled with resentment and indifference, that tiredness and frustration are what should really concern Boomers. Elder care — like most issues in this country — has been systemically ignored by generations, both old and new alike. That neglect will be far more damaging to Boomers than any opening salvo to a “generational war.”
There was a scandal recently in the Californian town of Antioch. The Chairmen of the City Council’s Planning Committee, Ken Turnage II, came under fire (he was actually removed from his position) when he controversially posted to Facebook that we need to let the virus play its course, saying:
“…We would have significant loss of life, we would lose many elderly, that would reduce burdens in our defunct Social Security System, health care cost (once the wave subsided), make jobs available for others and it would also free up housing in which we are in dire need of.”
Ken Turnage, who graduated High School in 1990, is on the cusp of Boomerdom (somewhere in his early 50s), and he is merely reflecting a common mindset among his generation, particularly among conservatives. There has been a consistent endeavor in this country to go at everything alone, and that includes retirement.
If I’d ask you to picture where older people live out their twilight years, then you might see that of a nursing home or an assisted living community. Another image that might pop into your mind is that of seniors in a retirement community. The former is where the occupant receives more intensive medical care, where the latter is less about healthcare and more concentrated on leisure.
There is a considerable gradation between these two types of care, but the gist is that we send our Olds away: they go to nursing homes, overly-planned suburbs with golf courses, resorts in the middle of the Arizona desert, and homes located very far away from us.
The young didn’t plan for this to happen. In fact, it was the opposite. Old rich people loved the idea of separation. Our concept of sending the old away, although not uniquely American, ties into the American idea of rugged individuality. We, as a nation, created this elaborate mythology where you put in your working years, and then you are rewarded fifteenish years of leisure and relaxation at the end of your life.
Everyone, the myth claimed, gets that idealized slice of the American dream, which, for a lot of people, turned out to be Florida.
This desire is not a universal practice. The idea of retirement — that an older person belonged apart from working society — didn’t even exist for non-rich people until well after the Industrial Revolution. This was when enough humans started to successfully live long enough to need coordinated care from larger society, and with that innovation came laws such as the Social Security Act (1935) and Medicare (1965).
This mythos came with some critical problems, though, and not just the fact that not everyone qualified. Before the pandemic, a dilemma that existed for even “hardworking” old people is that retirement communities are expensive.
It is expensive to create a separate community geared exclusively to a group of people who are no longer in the labor force, and who have higher medical costs overall. According to a 2018 survey done by Genworth Financial, the average price for a stay in a nursing home is well over $100,000 a year. The average cost of a less medically-intensive assisted living community is about half that at almost 50K a year (about the yearly cost of a fancy college… every year until you die).
These high costs have meant that a lot of our elderly have not been able to bear the expenses of mythologized retirement indefinitely, or at all. The number of Americans 60+ who have not saved adequately for this eventuality is staggering. The average 401k savings for an American in their 60s is somewhere in the 1-to-$200,000 range, but the amount needed to cover your actual expenses is often estimated to be over $1 million.
Our society fantasized about a fictional Never Neverland to send our old, and much like everything else, refused to pay for it properly. The expectation was 15 years of paradise, and the reality was a generation ill-prepared to take care of themselves in their final years.
It’s a common trope in film and media for a young person to move back in with their parents after a major life setback, but something that’s not as acknowledged is that it happens the other way too:
A study from AARP’s Public Policy Institute found that there are over 40 million people taking care of older family members with serious health problems. These are people that are doing the unpaid labor that society has refused to do, and unsurprisingly, one-fourth of that number is Millenials, many of which are often browner Americans.
Except many Millenials aren’t set up for that cost.
We are a generation that is now entering its second significant economic downturn in just twenty years. We are saddled with debt and diminished job prospects, and, on top of fighting climate change and authoritarianism, we now also have to bear the cost of a broken eldercare system.
The Captain Hook mindset embodied by men like Ken Turnage II created a world that’s frankly less secure, and besides a couple of rich older men, I struggle to see who benefited. Where a lot of people in the past placed their loved ones into terrible arrangements out of neglect, I worry that our generation is going to be forced to do so out of crushing exhaustion, and indifference.
If, on top of not getting evicted, you also have to worry about humanity surviving the next ten years, then how the hell are you going to have the mental and financial bandwidth to deal with Mary shouting obscenities about anchor babies?
The thing about Mary was that she was very old at the time that I knew her. As I neared the end of high school, I learned that she was dying of cancer. And so, I listened to her as she dumped all this hateful vile into my ears because I loved her.
One day, the day before I headed back to college after winter break, I broke down in tears outside the door of my friend’s house. I realized that I would never see Mary again. Her cancer was very bad, and she could barely talk. I wasn’t going to be able to come back until the summer, and by then, I feared it would be too late.
I was right.
She died a month later — alone, bitter, and hateful.
I still miss her.
I bring this story up to emphasize that when we talk about Boomers, we are talking about real people, people with loved ones and dependents. There is a tendency in this debate to get absolutist very quickly. It vacillates either between people who claim this is a natural inclination tracing back to Oedipus, and people who categorize all the failings of the world on Boomer shortsightedness.
Generational angst is indeed old, and it’s also true that the past generation failed us in many ways, but things are a little bit more complicated than that.
There is a tendency among older people to explain away the failings of past leaders as being acceptable for their time, but as we have come to understand the full scope of climate change and wealth inequality, the truth is that these people weren’t even good for the moment in history that they were in. Our elders’ most powerful have left us with a planet that will be worse than the one they inherited as adults.
That is a failure of leadership, and younger people are suffering (economically, politically, ecologically, etc. ) because of that shortsightedness.
All Boomers are not to blame equally, however, and saying so gives some terrible actors a pass. If you are someone like Mary, frustrated by all this talk of drowning out the Boomers, rather than get defensive, I’d ask that you realize that this is not about you.
It’s about the world your most influential voices created.
It’s a world that will end up hurting us all, so what will you do to change it now?
The world Mary lived in was cruel. She died alone facing unpaid medical bills, with no one to give her assets to. I never wanted Mary to end up ignored and filled with hate, and I don’t want to be in the same position forty years down the line.
I want things to be better, but that means accepting the past with open eyes and rejecting the mistaken ideologies that we used to guide us here.
It means having the humility to learn.
I wasn’t able to get Mary to join me in that, but I do hope other Boomers choose to. The last thing I want to do is drown out the voice of an elder with the wisdom to listen and learn from their mistakes.