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The popularity of ‘ok boomer’ may well just ‘ok boomerang’

Illustration by Gregory Grinnell/Northeastern University

The phrase “ok boomer” is everywhere these days. It’s popping up in the halls of New Zealand parliament, Fox is applying to trademark it, and you can buy all sorts of merchandise emblazoned with it.

The slang term was coined by members of Generation Z and adopted by millennials to express frustration with the viewpoints of their baby boomer counterparts. 

Adam Cooper is an associate teaching professor of linguistics in the College of Science. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

It’s purposely flippant and meant to draw ire (which it has), but it’s so pervasive that it might soon become “a victim of its own success,” says Adam Cooper, who is an associate teaching professor of linguistics at Northeastern.

“With this prominence and exposure, it may lose its potency as an expression of frustration,” says Cooper, who studies how languages change over time.

But, before we consider how the phrase “ok boomer” might die, we should consider how it was born.

Cooper says that “ok boomer” shares many characteristics of slang terms that came before it—it’s considered fairly informal speech, and it’s a phrase that was created by a community that isn’t in a position of power. 

In our case, “ok boomer” is a phrase that was created by teenagers and blossomed on the social media site TikTok, where videos containing the phrase have amassed almost 1 billion views. 

Those teenagers are members of Generation Z, which refers to people born between 1997 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. Because of their age, they’re a generation that is all but locked out of formal seats of power—the United States Congress doesn’t contain any members of Generation Z, and only the oldest Gen Zers were old enough to vote in the last two elections.

“This is a generation [of people] that largely don’t have the ability to vote yet, and that don’t necessarily see that those who do, are actually listening to them,” Cooper says.

More than 80 percent of the legislature is composed of baby boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964) and members of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), according to Pew.

These are groups that, by and large, have vastly different economic realities, political priorities, and access to higher education, and those generational differences are what inspired “ok boomer” in the first place, Cooper says. (They’re the same generational differences that inspired baby boomers to advise against trusting “anyone over 30” during the height of the protests against the Vietnam War and to wax poetic about all the things millennials have killed.) 

What sets the phrase apart from other slang phrases such as “lit” or “talk to the hand” or “beat feet” is the way “ok boomer” makes explicit this generational and power divide, Cooper says.

“Users of the expression ‘ok boomer’ aren’t just associating themselves as members of a particular group, they’re also pushing back on people who they perceive to have power,” he says.

But Cooper is starting to see the tide turn, as corporations trying to capitalize on the phrase’s popularity apply to trademark it for use on clothing and TV shows.

“Once you start to see people turning it into various opportunities for profit, the potency gets diluted and those who might have been the target of the expression may be less and less offended,” Cooper says.

Alas, the popularity of “ok boomer” may well just “ok boomerang.” 

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.

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