I was born at the tail end of the Boomer generation, in 1960, my experiences growing up very different from those at the start, born straight after WW2. But it’s fair to say that as a cohort, we Boomers had the cruisiest run: free education, a plethora of job opportunities, cheap housing, a throw-away, burn it all attitude to consumption and a freedom that our parents could only dream about.
So, when the Okay Boomer meme started turning up, it seemed fair to me. We, after all, were the generation who were warned of climate change (and the ensuing pandemics) and did bloody nothing — actually, worse than nothing, because we knew and still consumed, wrecking the environment with such a selfish sense of entitlement that, for many, it’s still impossible to change.
But if I break down this a little more, then maybe it’s fairer to say BlOKey Boomer, because I think, overall, the attitudes that have driven us to this bleak place are far more pronounced in Boomer men than women. Hold on a mo! Stop that shouting! At least allow me to me explain.
You see, life for a female Boomer was very different; that sense of entitlement did not extend to us. True, we may’ve had free education and access to jobs etc. but, while our male counterparts continued their patriarchal run greatly aided by these benefits (and with little compunction to change their behaviours), for the females growing up through this time things were very different.
For a start, our earliest enculturation saw us dressed in virginal white or pink, given dolls and nurse outfits, aprons and princess dress-ups, the boys in the family given bigger meals, different toys, separate standards of freedom and licence, different long term expectations. We watched our mothers tentatively dip their toes into the first feminist wave, fighting concerted resistance, unable to leave unhappy relationships due to lack of financial support and moral finger-pointing, violence against women brushed under the carpet, solo mothers reviled, any sexual freedom used as weapons against them and us. We lived under a cloud of insults, sluts, whores, hangi-pants, loose women. We were told to put up or shut up. We were made feel complicit with the original sin.
And as we grew, comments on our appearance, our bodies, were open season; we were assessed like furniture, leered at, shouted to, whistled at, and groped in the street, accused of being a frigid bitch if we didn’t take it as a compliment. Our parents’ male friends felt entitled to linger over kisses, eye us up, ‘accidentally’ brush past us, make jokes about our size and weight, our marriageability, our femininity, our ability to ‘nest.’
In my first job out of school, working in the local probation office to save for an overseas trip, the chief probation officer (a married man and neighbour) would follow me into the tiny filing room and stand so close I couldn’t move without having to rub past him to get out. Did I complain? No. I didn’t know I could. I didn’t even know that this was sexual harassment and I doubt very much whether anything would’ve happened even if I had spoken out. We all knew teachers who were notorious for touching their students, kiddy-fiddlers, yet no one ever seemed to act. We all knew fathers who were having affairs and able to maintain their social positions and their place as the head of the household while the women were branded forever, and our mothers had no choice but to turn the other cheek.
In small town Levin, the highlight of the year was the Miss Horowhenua competition, ironically always held as part of the AP&I show, along with the other cattle parades. And forget questions and skills, the competition was based purely on looks.
God help you if you wanted to get contraception. You had to find a doctor who didn’t know your family and lie, claiming irregular, painful periods or some other nonsense. And if you got pregnant, your choices were a shotgun wedding, adoption, or a quick trip to Australia (if you were lucky), a backstreet abortion or home remedy (if you were not.) Rape was rarely investigated or believed, safe sex was a misnomer, and moving in with a boyfriend was enough for some families to disown you. One of my friends, on showing her very Catholic mother a lovely necklace her boyfriend had given her, was told it was ‘payment for sex.’ Another saw her older sister locked in her bedroom for a week, when her parents discovered she was on the pill (and they took it off her, having to confront her pregnancy a few months later, forcing an unhappy marriage.)
What all this did, though, thanks to our mothers’ growing awareness of other ways to be, was to open our eyes to the inequity and to nurture a desire to live differently, to challenge the age-old male domination and to raise our children differently. We built resilience and, instead of working to maintain the status quo to survive, as our mothers and grandmothers had to do, we fought to shift attitudes and push the boundaries that had previously fenced women in. We raised sons who understood that they had to respect women and we raised daughters who understood that they were worthy of respect. And we told them ‘girls can do anything’ and that they owned their bodies and had the right to say who touched them, commented on them, eyed them. And we gave our daughters tool kits, scientific toys, freedom to determine who they wanted to be and how they lived.
Fast-forward to now and you see Boomer women still actively fighting to improve women’s lot and empower their daughters and granddaughters. Women in our age group are more likely to vote progressively and support embracing social services than our male Boomer counterparts. Women in our age group are more likely to shift our behaviours as we see more clearly the damage being done socially and environmentally.
I continue see so many male Boomers (not all, calm down, there are still lovely Boomer men out there) lacking a basic understanding that life has moved on, values have changed, and they show a reluctance to take steps to address these values gaps. They’re far more likely to be recalcitrant drink-drivers, speeders, consumers, sexists, labellers, racists, social conservatives. And they’re far more likely to resent strong women like our current Prime Minister, not trusting in her ability to be warm as well as strong. They’re still more likely to bottle up their feelings, stuck in the emotional void of the Silent Generation who raised them, and be reluctant to visit the doctor or take on board health advice, or give up their petrol-head, beer swilling, macho, homophobic ways. And they’re more likely to be among the voices who decry values shifts as ‘PC gone mad’, ‘the nanny state’, ‘woke.’ They’re the frightened voices of Entitlement Past, angry to see their privilege starting to be more fairly shared.
BUT, to be fair, many of my male counterparts did make a shift from the way their fathers behaved, more engaged with their families, more open to change. I don’t want this to feel like a pile-on of all Boomer men (and even the ones I’ve called out above no doubt have their good points), it’s just a growing frustration that this group, who still hold (or think they hold) the bulk of the power are grasping onto old world thinking as if it’s the last strip of vegetation between them and a fall into the Grand Canyon.
So, from now on, I’m no longer willing to accept the meme of Okay Boomer but, rather prefer BlOKey Boomer, which better represents the problem the former meme expressed.
Right, on your marks, get set, go . . . Respond!