You probably recognise the phrase. Among some Millennials, Generation Zers and maybe even Gen Alphas, it’s the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll. A way for young people to breezily dismiss the attitudes and opinions of Baby Boomers who they disagree with (or with whom they disagree, depending on the generation reading this article).
‘Ok boomer’ started off as a niche meme in online forums in the mid 2010s. But last year, it went mainstream.
Fans of the phrase claim it’s a pithy comeback to ‘snowflake’; an insult they say is routinely thrown at them by older people who think youngsters are overly entitled, spoiled and sensitive.
I can’t help but feel the generations are more divided than ever before. But is that really the case? If so, what’s causing it? Why now? And how can we move forward?
These are crucial questions as the world prepares for one of the biggest wealth transfers in history. American Millennials are expected to inherit more than US$68 trillion from Baby Boomers over the next 10 years. In Australia, the over-60s will pass down (or spend) an estimated AU$3 trillion within the next two decades.
With this in mind, perhaps now would be a prudent time to bury the hatchet between the generations.
Where did generational theory go wrong?
I found generational theory fascinating when I first started learning about it several years ago. It seemed logical and intuitive to me that people of similar age groups would share common characteristics and values based on the political, economic and social environments that shaped their formative years.
As time goes by, however, the conversation has become more toxic. Instead of focusing on the respective strengths and shared goals of each group, media headlines obsess over generational ‘splits’, ‘gaps’ and ‘divides’. The worst traits of every demographic are exaggerated and mocked.
The generations are now regularly described as being at war with one another.
That’s not to say this is a new phenomenon but resentments have clearly risen over the last few years – and Boomers aren’t the only generation under a harsh spotlight now.
So, what changed?
According to Jennie Bristow, author of Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer Blaming Won’t Solve Anything, serious negativity between the generations didn’t start simmering until the mid 2000s.
She believes there were two major catalysts: 9/11 and the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).
“These events had a particular, and profound, impact on the young people coming of age in this fearful new dawn,” she writes in her book. “The ‘spirit of the Sixties’ – experimental, freedom-loving, boundary-pushing – had never seemed so ethereal.”
“And those who embodied that spirit were no longer cast as the bright beacons of the counterculture, but seniors tottering on the brink of retirement, and about to drain what little was left of the national wealth with their greedy houses, rapacious pensions and inflated Social Security entitlements.”
Are the generations really at war?
Negative generational narratives have been building since the early 1980s. Back then, people were worried that ‘under-achieving’ Gen Xers wouldn’t be as financially comfortable as their parents.
Unfortunately, policymakers haven’t done much to change the mood. Governments have become increasingly worried about ageing populations and the strain that pensions and other state benefits could place on national budgets as the average age of citizens rises.
In the pursuit of austerity measures following the GFC, greater political and media emphasis has been placed on highlighting the have and the have-nots across generations.
But while the generational blame game seems to be a favourite topic among politicians, journalists and other social commentators, research suggests one demographic doesn’t buy into it: the general public.
In the UK, for example, a 2017 Intergenerational Commission study found that, yes, young people are very pessimistic about the future, yet very few blame Baby Boomers or government policies that favour older generations.
Survey respondents overwhelmingly criticised house prices (49%), a lack of stable employment opportunities (38%) and the world becoming a more dangerous place (24%). Overly generous state pensions (10%) and older people enjoying a greater share of wealth and income (10%) were considered far less important.
There’s even evidence to suggest different generations are closer now than at any other point in recent history, both figuratively and literally. In Australia, more people are living at home with their parents for longer, and the Bank of Mum and Dad is the country’s fifth biggest lender.
Two-thirds of grandparents also provide weekly childcare for their grandkids to ease the burden on households where, in many cases, both parents work. And 84% of Australians say they would turn to their family for help in a crisis.
It hardly sounds like generational trench warfare!
Young people today face many problems. Homeownership has plummeted among the under 35s, wage growth has stagnated, and job insecurity is high. But these problems are largely due to structural, economic and socio-political issues, rather than the fault of a particular generation.
So rather than argue over the differences between generations, let’s focus on our similarities and strengths.
Passing on the baton
Ultimately, generational theory is just that: a theory. When most people think about their relationships with different generations, it’s usually at a much more practical level. We worry about our families – their health, their wealth and their future.
Over the last two decades, I’ve worked closely with a range of investors from all the generations, and most of them want answers to the same key questions. Will their wealth last? What are the best ways to pass it on? How can they budget for a higher cost of living and medical expenses as they get older?
I’ve been asking myself very similar questions more and more, having had two children of my own within the last few years. If these issues are keeping you awake at night, here are some of my own brief thoughts on transferring generational wealth.
Enjoy your money
First and foremost, the wealth you have built up is yours, so don’t be afraid to spend it. As an Xennial with Boomer parents on my side and my husband’s, I feel quite strongly about them enjoying their hard-earned cash in retirement and I would hope most children feel the same way.
Talk to your family
According to a Perpetual study, 76% of Australians don’t have a Will, and 53% have never spoken to their children about their inheritance or legacy. Conversations about money are inevitably awkward, but communication is key to ensuring a smooth transition of wealth.
Educate your children on investing
It’s commonly said that 90% of generational wealth is lost by the third generation. A great way to safeguard wealth is to teach children (and grandchildren) early about building a portfolio. Let them benefit now from the vast knowledge you’ve built up over a lifetime of successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) investing.
Leave behind an investment how-to guide
If you find it too hard to talk to your family about wealth and legacy (or you think they won’t listen to you while you’re alive!), write everything down. Whether it’s in a Will, a letter of wishes or an informal manual, talk about your investment decisions – the good, the bad and the ugly – as a parting gift. And don’t be afraid to add personal stories, jokes and anecdotes.
Talk of generational divides may be exaggerated, but it’s definitely unhelpful. Now certainly isn’t the time for division.
Let’s instead focus our energy on using the strengths of each generation to our collective advantage.
Emma Davidson of Staude Capital Limited in London is the Head of Corporate Affairs for the Global Value Fund (ASX:GVF). This article is the opinion of the writer and does not consider the circumstances of any individual.