Intergenerational conflict has been the hallmark of American life for the last hundred years or so. Each generation rebels against the one before it. Children resent their parents and try to strike out on a new course that challenges old assumptions while parents scoff at young people who dismiss tried and true values.
Today these struggles manifest in the latest Internet meme where members of Generation Z, those born in the late 1990s and after, respond to complaints by older people with the phrase “OK boomer”, the equivalent of the exasperated eye roll, a dismissive “whatever” to the disapproval of their elders.
While generations have always been in opposition, the “OK boomer” phenomenon has a distinct political context. It is a response to criticism that Generation Z has unrealistic expectations about the future of the country and the planet. When older people complain that teenagers naively think they can solve the climate crises, income inequality and massive student loan debt with sweeping revolutionary reforms, the response is often a dismissive “OK boomer”.
Many in Generation Z are not only looking to make their own way and create distance between themselves and their elders. They also blame those older than themselves for a bleak state of affairs that requires massive repair. The irony is that the Boomer Generation, which is now seen as out of touch, was likely the most revolutionary age group in American history, one that broke countless social norms.
Some young people are uninterested in hearing the advice of their elders because they believe previous generations are responsible for our current situation, echoing the phrase from the 1960s, “don’t trust anyone over 30”. While it is certainly true that we live in chaotic and alienating political times when polarization seems to make any real change next to impossible, we would do well to contemplate Judaism’s teaching on intergenerational conflict.
Rabbinic tradition places a great deal of emphasis on respecting ones elders. Young students are recognized as the future, but they were expected to serve their teachers, whom they referred to as masters, in order to gain wisdom. The older generation has deep experience that it can impart to youth.
At the same time, the elders are expected to focus their efforts on those who will ultimately inherit the world. The Talmud (Ta’anit 23a) tells the tale of Honi HaMe’aggel, who was walking on the road and met a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man when the tree would bear fruit and was told, “Not for another 70 years.” So Honi asked him, “Why bother planting it since you can’t possibly benefit from it?” The man answered “[I myself] found a world full of carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.”
Each generation has its own unique qualities, experiences and needs, but we all live on the same earth together. Young people would do well to listen to the wisdom of their elders, while the old would do well to consider how their actions have affected, and will continue to affect, the future of the young.