This article first appeared in the Postmodern Realities column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 1 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
In a fifty-five second video clip, a white-haired man donning a baseball cap lectures millennials for being naive and idealistic. In response, a teenager lifts up a notebook with the phrase “OK Boomer” scrawled on it.1 Thus, an internet meme was born, and the latest shot was fired in the generational war between boomers and millennials. Having burst into popularity on the millennial and younger social media platform TikTok,2 the phrase “OK Boomer,” whose true origins are lost in the murk of the back pages of the internet, is used by many millennials (those born between about 1981 and 1996) to dismiss their parents’ generation of baby boomers (those born between about 1946 and 1964) as out of touch and self-centered.3 And, in a sign that its use has expanded beyond mere internet meme-dom and into the public sphere, one New Zealand member of Parliament responded to another member’s heckling with a dismissive “OK, Boomer.”4
In our particular historical moment, when we find ourselves confronted by a global pandemic from a virus that has proven especially dangerous for the sick and elderly, questions about intergenerational conflict have special weight. Discussion about what sort of containment measures are sufficient and whether it is ethical to risk the lives of the elderly for the sake of the economy have become issues of public debate. “To be perfectly honest,” said one Twitter commentator, “and this is awful, but to the young, watching as the elderly over and over and over choose their own interests ahead of Climate policy kind of feels like they’re wishing us to a death they won’t have to experience. It’s a sad bit of fair play.”5 Sentiments like this masquerade as moral equity, but instead reflect the insidious ways that generational prejudice can take hold of our hearts and minds.
The Weapons of Intergenerational Conflict. While “OK Boomer” functions as a millennial putdown of baby boomers, many millennials trace their dissatisfaction with their parents’ generation to the attitudes boomers have first shown toward them. A stereotypical boomer critique of millennials might go something like this: “Their generation is lazy, poor, narcissistic, image-obsessed, technology-addicted, and entitled.”6 And so “OK Boomer” functions as a sort of retort: “You boomers are a bunch of wealth-hoarding, out of touch, compassionless relics of a bygone era.”7 And while these are stereotypes, there is enough truth in them to create real tension and conflict between children and parents, boomers and millennials.
The Bible is certainly not silent about how we should view other generations — yet, it seems to be the exception rather than the rule that a church would focus its message on these issues. Perhaps this is because the historic church’s message is so countercultural to our Western story of expressive individualism, radical autonomy, and relentless progress. In many ways, however, we have bought into the notion that the goal of life is to gain radical autonomy: to be independent from our parents, from the government, and from anyone who might tell us who we are or what to do.
A Biblical Perspective of Other Generations. The Bible doesn’t have much patience for our expressive individualism, radical autonomy, or obsession with progress. Instead, it calls us to a beautiful vision of an intergenerational, interdependent, remembering community.
A recurring theme throughout the Old Testament is the importance of remembering — remembering God’s faithfulness in saving and preserving His people, remembering Israel’s past mistakes in disobedience and idolatry, remembering the law and truth that God has graciously given to His people. The key to all of this remembrance is the passing down of wisdom from one generation to the next. After receiving God’s laws, the Israelites were commanded to “teach them diligently” to their children (Deut. 6:7) so that “you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments” (Deut. 6:2).8 The intergenerational nature of God’s people is woven into the shape of their story, with the decisions of each generation affecting the next. The older generation bears this responsibility to pass down the truths, laws, and lessons they’ve been entrusted with, while the younger generation bears a responsibility to listen to their elders and learn from them.
We see this even in the Ten Commandments, where the consequences of idolatry are borne by “the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate” the Lord, and the consequences of obedience are seen in God’s “showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love” Him and keep His commandments (Exod. 20:5–6). The well-known command to “Honor your father and your mother” is paired with the consequence “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12). We are commanded to obey our parents (and all of our spiritual fathers and mothers in the body of Christ) because we have something to learn from them, and they have something to give us. The legacy of God’s people is shaped by the obedience and faithfulness of each successive generation. What is often lost in the conflict between millennials and boomers is this sense that the older generation has something to offer. We millennials are quick to point out the faults of our parents’ generation (which are real), but slow to recognize their wisdom (also real). We are prone to the sort of “chronological snobbery” that C. S. Lewis describes as assuming that simply because something is new, it’s better.9
The importance of intergenerational community is reinforced, rather than discarded, by the New Testament. In his letter to Titus, Paul passes down a vision for a robustly intergenerational and interdependent community:
Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:2–6)
The older generation serve as models of hard-fought wisdom, maturity, and faithfulness. They are to be sound in doctrine so that they may teach and train the younger generation. Similarly, Paul offers a vision of younger generations who flee the characteristic temptations of youth — pride, hot-headedness, uncontrolled desire, to name a few — and instead pursue self-control, submission to the authority, and wisdom of their elders. Older generations should love younger generations by seeking to teach and model the best of what they’ve learned, instead of resenting those who will eventually replace them. Younger generations should love older generations by submitting to their wisdom and subduing their pride, recognizing that they don’t have it all figured out.
The Place of Permanent Ceasefire. The church can and should be the place of a permanent ceasefire in the generational wars. Unfortunately, too often our churches reflect our society’s stratification by age group and generation. We separate our kids on Sunday mornings, we have youth groups for middle and high school students, and even small groups are often defined by age. I’m not arguing that any of these are bad in and of themselves —there can be good reasons for each. However, too often they are easy ways of avoiding intergenerational conflict, which is to say, they are also ways of avoiding the absolutely essential learning that comes by being in community with those who are both older and younger than we.
What would it look like for the church to be the place of ceasefire — especially in this moment of societal crisis? How might the church create the possibility of understanding and connection between generations instead of suspicion and alienation? What if the younger generations who are less vulnerable to becoming severely ill with COVID-19 ran errands for the elderly at higher risk? Could we pair our high school and college students with older adults in the congregation, inviting them over for dinner and developing mentoring relationships? Could we integrate our youth groups into worship services, rather than sequestering them in their designated youth room? These are just initial ideas — the real work must be done by local churches who understand their contexts and their communities. But we ought to feel burdened to see the various generations attending our churches connect and learn from one another. Intergenerational community is not accidental to the local church, it is essential for the church to be what it is meant to be — a place of welcome, community, and rescue for each of us, a place where we can learn the truths of Scripture, of who God was, and is, and will be, for every generation. —Kyle A. Keating
Kyle A. Keating, MDiv, serves as Dean and teaches history, theology, and apologetics at Providence Classical Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri. He has written for Christ and Pop Culture and Mere Orthodoxy and speaks on a variety of topics related to ethics, apologetics, and the relationship between Christianity and culture.
- [email protected], TikTok, https://www.tiktok.com/@linzrinzz/video/6714782003637521670.
- Gianluca Mezzofiore, “A 25-Year-Old Politician Got Heckled During a Climate Crisis Speech. Her Deadpan Retort: ‘OK Boomer,’” CNN, November 7, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/06/asia/new-zealand-ok-boomer-trnd/index.html.
- Taylor Lorenz, “‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations,” New York Times, October 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/29/style/ok-boomer.html.
- Mezzofiore, “A 25-Year-Old Politician Got Heckled.”
- Shai Held, “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly: A Global Pandemic Doesn’t Give Us Cause to Treat the Aged Callously,” The Atlantic, March 12, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/respect-old/607864/.
- For a defense of the millennial generation, see Sam Hill, “OK Millennial: Boomers are the Greatest Generation in History,” Newsweek, March 9, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/2020/03/13/ok-millennial-boomers-are-greatest-generation-history-1490819.html.
- For a perspective more sympathetic to the millennial and younger demographic, see Aja Romano, “‘OK Boomer’ Isn’t Just About the Past. It’s About Our Apocalyptic Future,” Vox, November 19, 2019, https://www.vox.com/2019/11/19/20963757/.
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- For more on the value of the wisdom of previous generations, see C. S. Lewis’s “Introduction” in Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. John Behr (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012).