OK, Boomer: The Climate Crisis and the Generation Gap

Earlier this month, Chlöe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old member of New Zealand’s parliament, was giving a speech on her country’s proposed Zero Carbon Law when she was interrupted by an older male colleague – “OK, Boomer,” she retorted.

The gibe drew media attention from the U.S. to Canada, the UK, France, India, China, and beyond. What was it about those two words—“OK, Boomer,” offhand and nearly inaudible—that caught the world’s attention? The phrase is four years old, but on Nov. 7, it went viral, and seemed to have hit a nerve. Some conservatives called the expression ageist. One talk-show host even compared the phrase to the “n-word,” drawing a quick rebuke from Dictionary.com.

Media outlets leapt into the “OK, Boomer” debate. “Now it’s war,” declared an article in The New York Times, “Generation Z has finally snapped over climate change and financial inequality.”

Despite Swarbrick’s heckler, New Zealand’s Zero Carbon law passed nearly unanimously. Here in the U.S., our youngest-ever congresswoman made a “Green New Deal” her very first piece of legislation – even though the scope of the “green dream or whatever they call it” struck many senior Democrats as prohibitive. Why do young people seem so much more focused on climate change? What does “OK Boomer” have to do with the issue, anyway?

Last year, a Gallup poll uncovered a “global warming age gap.” Americans aged 18-34 were reported to be 75 percent more likely to see global warming as a serious threat than the 55-and-older demographic. They were also 36 percent more likely to believe in human-caused climate change, and more than 50 percent more likely to think global warming had been underrepresented in the news. (Although often used interchangeably, the term “climate change” was designed to include a broader variety of impacts than simple “global warming,” such as extreme weather patterns.)

This generation gap may be partly due to life expectancy. For example, an American born in 1960 can expect to live until about 2030, but the most extreme impacts of climate change may not be felt until 2050 or beyond. Members of Generation Z born after the year 2000 can expect to live beyond 2075, if global climate collapse doesn’t kill them first.

Responding to allegations of ageism from her older colleagues, Swarbrick, the New Zealand parliamentarian, was unapologetic: “Today I have learnt that responding succinctly and in perfect jest to somebody heckling you about *your age* as you speak about the impact of climate change…makes some people very mad. So I guess millennials ruined humour. That, or we just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and abstain from avocados.”

Whatever the cause of the generation gap, it has never been clearer that at its heart, the international climate movement is a youth movement. From the global climate strike and school walkout to the members of Extinction Rebellion, youths have been at the forefront of climate activism.

“OK, millennials. But we’re the people that actually have the money,” responded one AARP executive, without a hint of irony. But that may be why grassroots campaigns have begun to play such a large part in the global climate movement.

Much has been done through teen activist Greta Thunberg’s international campaign to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Thunberg recently visited the U.S. on her roundabout way to a relocated COP 25. The young Swede has become the literal figurehead of an international movement, but continues to draw expressions of venom and hate, particularly from middle-aged men.

But not all middle-aged men. On Nov. 7, former U.S. presidential candidate Jay Inslee tweeted, “I’m a Boomer and it’s time for our generation to do our part to defeat climate change. Ok, Boomers? (Did I do that right?)”

Yes, Jay, you did it right.

A study from N.C. State University recently found that climate education for children tends to rub off on parents, too. All the more remarkable was the fact that the change of opinion documented in the study was most pronounced in politically conservative male parents.

“There’s a robust body of work showing that kids can influence their parents’ behavior and positions on environmental and social issues, but this is the first experimental study demonstrating that climate education for children promotes parental concern about climate change,” said Danielle Lawson, lead author of the study.

“This study tells us that we can educate children about climate change and they’re willing to learn, which is exciting because studies find that many adults are resistant to climate education, because it runs counter to their personal identities,” Lawson said. “It also highlights that children share that information with their parents, particularly if they’re given tools to facilitate communication—and that parents are willing to listen.”

Maybe the ultimate solution to the climate crisis starts with finding fathers and daughters – or sisters, or brothers, or mothers – willing to listen and learn from the people they love.

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