I got called a Boomer the other day.
While texting with a friend, I accidentally left my caps lock on. So, when I “shouted” at her, we both had a good chuckle. As a member of Generation X, I’m the child of a Baby Boomer. But now that I have children of my own, I’m the one who’s confounded by the new technology which they are so adept at using. I’m the one who grumbles (however humorously) about “kids these days,” and who wonders why popular music is so loud and mindless. It’s my generation who’s now officially middle-aged and at a crossroads in terms of our place in society. We’re not “old enough” to be the subject of much ageism, but we’re not young anymore, either.
The interesting thing about ageism is that it often goes both ways. Sexism is usually referring to the unfair treatment of women, and racism in our country (given the inherent power dynamics) is always against people of color. Classism is understood to be the wealthy classes’ disdain for those in poverty. But ageism can refer to both the dishonoring of those with “gray hair” (Proverbs 16:31), as well as the dismissal of those who are young (1 Timothy 4:12).
As we think about the appalling conditions of too many nursing homes, our culture’s obsession with “anti-aging serums” and plastic surgery, and comedy routines where the elderly are the butt of the jokes, we have to admit that we do not acknowledge just how vulnerable our oldest members are, nor how much they have gone through. But the disdain goes both ways. While we Gen-X folks tend to stay out of the fray, Boomers have blamed Millennials for the demise of everything from chain restaurants to the diamond industry.1 Even as Millennials are now a large part of the workforce and are contributing to society even under the strain of student loan debt and climate change, the stereotypical Boomer dismisses the stereotypical Millennial as selfish and spoiled. The generation that protested “the man” in the 1960’s and 70’s has now become the establishment.
So, when New Zealand parliament member Chlöe Swarbrick responded to the opposition’s heckling with the popular phrase “Ok boomer,” it was a rallying cry of “collective exhaustion.”2 Swarbrick responded to the furor over her remark by saying that “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 on *your generation* with the literal title of their generation makes some people very mad. So I guess millennials ruined humor.”3 It is interesting that the heckle itself (heckling is a celebrated part of New Zealand parliament culture) received no pushback, just the deadpan response from a younger member of parliament.
When we think about the “chicken and egg” question of who’s to blame for the deeply entrenched divide between generations, there is clearly blame on both sides. The Boomer generation has not mentored and fostered the growth of successive generations, nor have Gen-Xers and Millennials acknowledged the contributions of past generations. The answer to this is not simply, but rather succinctly, sin. It is sin that makes us divide the world into an “us vs. them” polarity, and sin that makes us downplay the humanity of other groups to foster our own. It’s sin that makes us focus on our own group’s accomplishments at the expense of other groups, and sin that makes us “despise one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10), even as we “despise [our mothers and fathers when they] are old” (Proverbs 23:22).
So, what’s the answer? Is there a way to find balance, or are we doomed to despise the generations which are not our own? When we are reminded that we are family, and that we are all of one body, we start to back off of our infighting and instead learn how to value and care for all family members in their various ages, needs, and contributions. In the same letter to Timothy in which Paul encourages Timothy to serve well and not let others ignore him because of his youth, Paul also exhorts the young minister (and thus the entire family of God) to “encourage [an older man] as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
Instead of making other generations the enemy, when we place ourselves in a position of service to those who are both older and younger than ourselves, we echo Jesus in how he loved the little children whom he came to save and how he honored his father in heaven. Instead of being quick to take or give offense, when we can all laugh—together—at the various stereotypes and foibles of each of our generations, we can focus on the unchanging truth of the one who is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). When we can remember Jesus’ humanity and the ageless presence of his Holy Spirit, we can then honor all humans as the cherished image bearers that we are.