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It’s easy to dismiss boomers as know-nothings – but they got some things right, OK?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 01/02/2020 Hadley Freeman
Yara Shahidi, Barack Obama that are sitting in a suit and tie: Barack Obama and Yara Shahidi speaking at the Obama Foundation summit, 2019. © Getty Images Barack Obama and Yara Shahidi speaking at the Obama Foundation summit, 2019.

One of the cruellest ironies of being a teenager is that the attitude you reckon makes you look the most grown up is the one that proves you are definitely still a child. There are few things more adorably infantile than the wholesale dismissal of one’s parents as idiotic know-nothings compared with you, the all-knowing fount of wisdom, albeit one who still needs her parents to drive her everywhere. I once got into an enormous huff with my parents because they dismissed Eurotrash – the much-missed (by me) Channel 4 show – as “stupid”. AS IF! Objectively, they were wrong: as TV shows predicated on laughing at other countries go, Eurotrash was amazing. It never occurred to me that my parents had led lives before me, ones in which they did things that my potato-like 15-year-old brain could not even begin to fathom. My father had lived abroad; my mother had worked with Jim Henson; both received far more higher education than I did. And still, I rolled my eyes and told them they knew “nothing”.

The younger generation has to disown the older one in order to break away from it. I see this in my own kids – already, at the age of four, dab hands at the keenly deployed eye roll. And I hear it every time someone sneeringly dismisses “a boomer”, anyone born between 1946 and 1964, or “a second waver”, a feminist who came of age in the 1960s and 70s. There’s even a genre of literature about it, with calm and measured titles such as A Generation Of Sociopaths: How The Babyboomers Betrayed America. Meanwhile, the much-discussed “OK, boomer” meme is chucked at anyone, whenever they were born, who expresses an opinion deemed unforgivably out of step with the times. I am not a boomer, but I’ll be frankly insulted if this column doesn’t earn me a few “OK, boomer” emails.

Yes, boomers had it pretty great, and look at this (literally) hot mess of a planet they’ve left us. To make it worse – and this, clearly, is the real source of anti-boomer ire – they then complain about how easy those avocado-eating millennials have it. Or, putting it into the kind of context I can easily understand, it’s like the dorky parents in an 80s movie telling their way cooler teenager that he should be grateful for his meagre allowance, when they have a massive car and hang out all day at the country club. No wonder that teenager has a party and trashes the house. It’s what the parents deserve!

And yet boomers built the world we live in today, for worse but also for better. True, Donald Trump is a boomer; but so are Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Stephen King and Bill Gates. And although the figureheads of the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism – Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem – were born before the boom, it was the boomers who went on the marches, because, as millennials and Gen Zers know, it is the young who agitate for and effect social change.

Plenty of the lieutenants in these movements were born during the boom – Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon among them. Some of their views might not find favour with the young women who today consider porn empowering and sex work liberating; Dworkin was not exactly known for her “sex positivity”. But it was MacKinnon who first drafted what became the law against workplace sexual harassment.

There is a tendency in feminism that will always – ironically – want to kill its mother figures. Every new wave has defined itself in opposition to the one that came before, and I never hear any reference to “the second wavers” today that isn’t critical. Feminist-lite website Jezebel claimed in 2018 that “The Backlash To #MeToo Is Second-wave Feminism”. Never mind that this isn’t even true (I’m pretty sure Dworkin, for one, would have been down with #MeToo); the point was, as it always is, that these old people don’t understand anything. It’s an argument that’s since been levelled against Obama, when he dared to suggest that “we can’t completely remake society in a minute”, earning the first black American president some swift “OK, boomer” dismissals; and Oprah Winfrey, who last week made the mistake of recommending the much-discussed new novel American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, which has been accused of cultural appropriation.

Part of growing up is learning that your elders are fallible. But a bigger part is seeing them fully, their weaknesses but also their strengths. Because as any therapist will tell you, sitting around and blaming your parents for everything doesn’t get you far, and trashing your house just means you live in a mess. Generational divides, aside from being cliched, accomplish less than nothing, as the last general election in this country proved. Maybe Obama (winner of two elections) might actually have some insights into how you sway mass opinion; maybe that most reviled of British boomers, Tony Blair (winner of three), might, too. In a world where newness is all, and your every device is telling you to update to the latest version, it’s easy to forget that sometimes there are older stories worth learning from.

Gosh darn it, kids, go upstairs and do your damn homework!

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