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This election could rest on finding a reply to 'OK, Boomer'

A 25-year-old New Zealand politician has admitted making "some people very mad" by using a viral phrase in parliament. Chlöe Swarbrick told an older lawmaker "OK boomer" after they interrupted her speech on climate change
Chlöe Swarbrick shut down an interruption in New Zealand's parliament with the viral phrase "OK, Boomer"

It’s the put-down heard around the world. Earlier this week, New Zealand MP Chlöe Swarbrick shut down an interruption to her parliamentary speech with two words: “OK, Boomer”. Her use of a phrase which has been quietly gathering steam on social media in recent months meant the exchange went viral. Millennials and Gen Zs gathered in delight to see their language hit the mainstream, chortling at the meme culture that leaves all but the wokest parents perplexed. 

It’s easy to dismiss this exchange as just another humorous political incident, akin to Ed Miliband borrowing Malcolm Tucker’s ‘omnishambles’. But these four syllables are more than an amusing break in the Brexit and electioneering-gaffe-heavy news agenda. "OK, Boomer" isn’t simply a sassy retort from the younger generation; it sums up the political state of the nation. And the upcoming election’s results may very well rest on political parties finding the right reply.

What “OK, Boomer” represents is the shutting down of intergenerational conversation as millennials reach frustration saturation over issues like housing, Brexit and climate change. It says they’re tired of trying to engage with an older demographic and a political class who they feel have ignored their concerns. It says there’s no point talking because the differences between them are too great to overcome. 

It’s not revolutionary to say politicians can’t afford to let this happen. This general election is going to be closely and intensely fought and engaging young voters will play a major - if not defining - part in determining the outcome. Since the election was called there has been a surge in young voter registration - almost 65% of the 177,000 new voters registering on the first day of the general election campaign were aged between 18 and 34, and there are signs that this age group are the most willing to vote tactically. These are votes no party can afford to give up on; the short-term electoral and long-term societal impacts are too significant. 

Recognising that young voters need to be engaged and actually engaging them are two very different matters, however. If politicians want to connect with this disillusioned demographic then they need to show that they’re taking their worries seriously. That is why, in government, I pushed hard to lower the voting age in the European referendum. Leaders need to publicly acknowledge and write policy pledges around the key topics young people are specifically vocal about: renting, climate change, skills, education, mental health, animal welfare. They need to actively listen to the concerns and suggestions of under-38s (those defined as millennials or Gen-Zs) and take care to factor their needs into policy pledges. Once these policies are shaped, they need to be communicated in ways that younger voters will hear. 

Taking inspiration from young people and their meme-generated delight should be encouraged, not sniffed at. Tapping into the understanding of our rapidly evolving digital reality and how it spawns "OK, Boomer"-style viral hits (originally popularised on TikTok, beloved by under-25s) would help political parties engage in a modern, tech-enabled way that resonates with the millennial and Gen Z voter. 

It’s widely acknowledged that Jeremy Corbyn’s success with younger voters was partly down to a slick social media strategy that didn’t take itself too seriously. It got the message out in the right places, without the cringe-inducing tech bloopers which politicians seem to too frequently find themselves involved in (#EdBalls). Taking these platforms and their cultures seriously should be a key part of any political communications strategy. 

Not only will understanding why "OK, Boomer" went viral help political parties shape policies pledges and educate them on how they should be communicated, it should also give them an insight into the role tech should play if they triumph at the ballot box. 

Social media-savvy Momentum will be key to galvanising millennial support for Jeremy Corbyn Credit: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

A forward-thinking, innovation-first Government would prove to younger demographics that even a dog as old as Parliament can learn new tricks. Technology that allows citizens to engage more easily with politicians, modernising how both parliamentarians and electorates can cast their votes, and championing technology-led solutions that make our societies work better for us. In France, Cap Collectif, a start-up, helped shape President Macron’s "Grand Débat" so that it wasn't just in the country’s town halls but online, too. In the UK, Manchester-based Goodbox is helping charities fundraise from the cashless generation; their beautifully-designed “tap boxes” meaning everyone can help address homelessness.

Working on these sorts of issues in a modern, aware way will earn the respect of those currently disaffected. It’s no longer enough to dabble around the edges when it comes to the role of tech in our public life, we must embrace it. 

Finding a reply to “OK, Boomer” isn’t easy; there’s a reason it’s an effective put down. But if politicians want to woo this key voter base then they need to listen, find the right way to respond, and modernise their approach so it reflects our electorate and the rapidly evolving world in which we live. If they don’t, their words will fall on deaf ears. And they’ll be more likely to end up as a meme than an MP.