How the Boomer Myth Shaped the World, and Then Fell Apart

It’s time to admit that, like boomers themselves, “OK boomer” is old. Since we’ve now entered a period where the idea of what it means to be a boomer has become contested, it’s time to ask: What was the boomer ideal, and how much of it holds up? By looking at the pop culture the boomers originally produced, and comparing it to the way they’re portrayed now, we can gain insight into how to correct some of that generation’s mistakes, but also where to find generational common ground, and potentially learn from the past.


It’s time to admit that, like boomers themselves, “OK boomer” is old. It’s true the oldest members of the post-World War II generation, —aka the baby boomers—became a dismissive meme for a reason. After all, boomer politicians continue to run the US, drowning out other voices despite their advancing ages. And the children of boomers (especially millennials) have become more aware of how a romanticized, selective boomer mythology dominated so much of how they were raised to see this world. Boomers were the generation who created the 60s hippie movement of peace, love and social freedom–and who hammered home in film, TV, music and pop culture that this is how they should forever be immortalized. But since we’ve now entered a period where the idea of what it means to be a boomer has become contested, it’s time to ask: What was the boomer ideal, and how much of it holds up? By looking at the pop culture the boomers originally produced, and comparing it to the way they’re portrayed now, we can gain insight into how to correct some of that generation’s mistakes, but also where to find generational common ground, and potentially learn from the past. Here’s our take on the way boomers mythologized themselves, the stories they left out along the way, and how they’re more similar to their Gen X and millennial children than anyone might expect.

The Legitimate Reasons for the “OK Boomer” Hate

Today, boomers–born between 1946 and 1964–are an easy punchline, fitting into memes because of the common perception that they’re largely selfish, hypocritical and conservative.

“We got a job out of college, no student debt. Retirement funded 100%. Voted for Trump but just for the taxes, don’t believe in COVID but still got the vaxes.”


Recently, they’ve even become our go-to villains in horror movies. In the most recent installment of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, villain Leatherface is now an aging boomer, reawakened to kill a younger generation who are powerless to stop him. Meanwhile, the original movie’s lone survivor Sally is revealed to have become so intent on revenge that she’s willing to sacrifice young people. This mirrors the popular perception of boomers as people who are focused on their own drives and desires that they’re selling out the future. Even the more liberal boomers are depicted as hypocrites who mask their own ruthless, ulterior motives.

“You know, I would have voted for Obama for a third time if I could.”

- Get Out

On some level, this turn toward transforming boomers into villains makes sense. After all, by now, boomers undeniably control the world, and haven’t done much to change it for the benefit of future generations – because, as writer Bruce Gibney puts it,

Many of the most popular and successful boomer politicians are people who specifically managed to win office by delaying the pluralistic dreams of their peers and focusing on the promise of individual achievement and transcendence. This mirrors the way that originally high-minded rhetoric boomer rhetoric about love and peace has been warped to frequently mask hedonistic self-interest. By any serious metric of understanding their idealistic project, the boomers ultimately failed.

“You talked to me about Emerson, and baby boomers, and a physical great awakening, and all you did was write a fucking little piece about people getting into each other’s pants.”

- Perfect

A Vanishing Mythology

As the first generation to grow up with the enormous prosperity that accrued to the United States after World War II, Boomers were able to quickly gain a hold on most of our current forms of culture. Boomer artists defined popular music in the 1960s with the onset of what we now call “classic rock,” and icons of that era from the Beatles and Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin (even the specific iconography of Woodstock) are still highly visible and formative for later generations. Boomer pop culture focuses heavily on using this imagery of the “free love” late 60s and 70s to present a heroic front, and characterize the generation as idealists who tried to make the world a better place through values of peace, love, and understanding, overcoming prejudice and authoritarianism. But the flipside of this whole ideology was an individualist streak. That’s why romantic boomer figures in film include social outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde or the drug-smuggling bikers of Easy Riders–radically non-traditional “heroes” who didn’t need to engage with the rules of society at large because of their transgressive edge and need to find themselves.

“One time I told you I was gonna make you somebody. That’s what you’ve done for me. You made me somebody they’re going to remember.”

- Bonnie and Clyde

While boomers’ individualist streak was initially positioned as an earnest challenge to a corrupt status quo, it wasn’t long before it manifested in the rampant materialism and emphasis on personal improvement of the 1980s. Rather than being oriented toward society, boomers decided to focus on bettering themselves. Their ideals of peace and “free love” eventually boiled down to a core of hedonism, with a dose of institutional cynicism justified by the Watergate and Vietnam events of the 1970s. But over time, we’ve started to realize that the seeds of conflict and disillusionment were embedded even earlier: The “Summer of Love” branding of 1967 masked turmoil in that same era over civil rights and political tragedy–so the free-love utopia that some felt they were experiencing was arguably pretty myopic and self-centered.

“Do you think anyone believes that the government will take care of us anymore? Not since Vietnam or Watergate, no.”

- Perfect

More recently, stories about the baby boomer generation from that era have focused more on people who aren’t white and who experienced politics in a different way. Even Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago Seven, a movie made by a white writer who deeply embodies the boomer experience in pop culture, focuses on the frequently-marginalized political members of the generation who were revolutionaries and not hippies. Judas and the Black Messiah goes further, literalizing the lost potential of black boomers in the person of the assassinated Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. In some ways, Hampton is the embodiment of the promise of the boomer generation, someone who is genuinely committed to the ideals espoused by many of his peers. But ultimately, the system fights back against Hampton in the person of Bill O’Neal–who made the same “sellout” decision as his white contemporaries by informing on Hampton in exchange for safety and financial security. In the end, the “American dream”-style promises motivating O’Neal led to humble rewards, and after his deeds came to public light in the Eyes on the Prize documentary in 1990, O’Neal committed suicide.

“That’s the difference between revolution and the candy-coated facade of gradual reform. Reform is just the masters teaching the slaves how to be better slaves.”

- Judas and the Black Messiah

The Circle of Life

“These baby boomers—these soft, fruity baby boomers—are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids.”

- George Carlin

Right now, the dominant image of boomers is as overbearing parents, people who promised their Gen X and millennial children successful lives if they kept on the right path, and then expressed frustration with how those children later struggled. But this dynamic of mutual disappointment itself mirrors the relationship between boomers and their own parents, members of the so-called “Silent Generation.” While boomers fault their children as being irresponsible, their own parents saw them as having been spared true trials like living through the Great Depression or fighting in either of the World Wars. In fact, the boomer mythology is defined in large part by its rebellion against their “square” parents. So we start to see repetition, and get the sense that maybe the generational conflict embodied by boomers’ relationships with both their parents and their children is actually deeply human, rather than something unique to them.

“The parents never learned how to deal with their own failures, so they pass their unrealistic expectations on to their kids..”

- Nip/Tuck

As boomers get older, it’s worth remembering that it can be useful to listen to and connect with them—even if it’s to learn from their mistakes. One of the most popular shows of the past couple of years, Only Murders in the Building, is about the value of millennial-boomer friendships.

The series focuses on the relationship between Charles and Oliver, played by boomer actors Steven Martin and Martin Short, and Mabel, played by Selena Gomez—three people who initially bond over their shared love of true crime, and eventually over their shared sense of isolation. The series literalizes the potential of this kind of give and take by having Charles and Mabel teach each other new skills the other might not have known.

“The old men are sad characters.” “Sort of. They’re also the first friends I’ve had in a really long time.”

- Only Murders in the Building


The more things change, the more they stay the same. Boomers happened to have access to institutional and cultural power that made it possible for them to accumulate wealth, hold onto it, and reshape the world—but they had similar fights with their own parents, and acted out some of the basic universal stories. Failed idealism, excess, and frustration are things that any of us can relate to. But perhaps the biggest difference between boomers and prior generations is that they’ve stuck around. The impending deaths of boomers has been a punchline in film and TV for twenty years.

“I never realized how much money there was to be made in the funeral business.” “Death care industry. And it’s only gonna grow, with all the baby boomers and all.”

- Six Feet Under

But this won’t be the case forever. So instead of fully dismissing boomers and tuning them out until they’re gone, it might be time to think about what we can learn from their successes and their failures.

“Besides he’s a baby boomer they invented drugs.”

- Community