- No longer cool, millennials have fallen as the ‘it’ generation. That title belongs to Gen Z.
- As the oldest millennial turns 40, Gen Z has lambasted them for their side parts and skinny jeans.
- On the surface, millennials feel outdated. But the real issue is that they’re reckoning with a new life stage.
I was sipping a Moscow Mule in the corner of an East Village bar one night when a sense of déjà vu came over me.
The room was a sea of spaghetti straps, claw clips, baguette bags, and bright colors, catapulting me into my teenage past — more than a dozen years ago.
Confused about how these trends became cool again and when I aged out of my favorite bars, I looked down at my frayed skinny jeans and wondered if I should find new spots that attracted an … older crowd. My peers feel the same, taking to TikTok to cry about feeling old and outdated in their favorite NYC haunts.
At 29, I recognize my youth, but am also painfully aware of the cultural gap between a late 20-something and an early 20-something, especially when they’re divided into two generations: millennials and Gen Z.
I would know — I’ve been writing about millennials for the past two-and-a-half years, so I’ve been particularly attuned to how generational conversations changed during the pandemic.
I watched as the media pounced on Gen Z mocking millennials on TikTok for how they wear their hair and for their love of coffee and wine. I saw headlines pop up deeming millennials “ancient” or “officially old” when their cult-favorite brand Glossier launched an anti-aging retinol. And I noticed how the millennial narrative shifted to middle-aged experiences like having kids and buying houses, while new lifestyle trends and consumer behavior increasingly fell to Gen Z.
Between last spring’s lockdowns and this spring’s economic reopening, we’re all a year older than we once were. But the lost year of 2020 accentuated the starkness of the cultural shift as a new generation enters young adulthood.
The oldest millennial is now 40
Millennials began to lose ‘it’ status when the oldest turned 40 this year. While the youngest millennials are just 25, the vast majority of the generation are no longer in their 20s. A term even popped up to describe the oldest cohort, much to the internet’s chagrin: geriatric millennial.
This homeowning millennial isn’t the avocado toast-loving, Instagram-obsessed, living-with-their-parents millennial that the world has learned to love and hate. That title now goes to Gen Z, except they’ve swapped out avocado toast for oat lattes and Instagram for TikTok.
While millennials aged, so too did the generation behind them, the oldest of whom turn 24 this year. Much like millennials graduated into the Great Recession, Gen Z has their own tale of economic plight: graduating in the pandemic. And, as does every generation, they have certain hallmark traits: They’re activists, favor neon colors, and dress in 2000s clothes.
The world has noticed it all. After all, the fascination with young people is not about any particular generation, but about whoever is driving trends and influencing consumer spending. Now, it’s Gen Z’s turn to take over the economy as their collective income reaches $33 trillion. (It’s set to surpass that of millennials in 2031.)
It’s a natural evolution, Jason Dorsey, who runs the Center for Generational Kinetics, a research firm in Austin, Texas, told me. “At around this age and life stage, the next generation sort of takes the mantle as the ‘it’ generation, because they’re old enough to really start to exert their influence.”
Society feels like it finally understands millennials, he added, switching their focus to the generation that remains a mystery. That leaves Gen Z “shifting and driving much of the conversation,” which he predicts they’ll do for the next 15 years.
Awakening from the pandemic to a cultural shift
Pandemic or no pandemic, everyone turned another year older in 2020. But a year at home heightened the millennial-to-Gen-Z cultural transition.
Skinny jeans and side parts are out. So too are Hogwarts houses and the term “doggo.” The frowning face emoji now carries a more sexual meaning than a frustrated one, and “elite” no longer means excellence, but hitting the spot. Y2K fashion has re-entered the trend cycle, and a Chanel suit from 1995 is now considered vintage.
Digital bonding helped many of these new trends take root. Gen Z, already digital natives, had ample time to scroll on their phones during quarantine. They connected with one another, Dorsey said, as many underwent the fortifying experience of moving back home during the pandemic at a similar life stage.
At the center of this cultural shift was TikTok, which blew up during the pandemic. By September 2020, the social media app grew by 75%, expanding into intergenerational use. It signals the growing influence of Gen Z in leading consumer behavior, much the same way millennials did with Instagram.
TikTok became the place not just for dance videos, but for Gen Z’s jests at millennials and exploration of fashion trends, from tie-dye loungewear to baggy jeans. They’ve made their way to the streets, explaining why I came out of the pandemic feeling the need to update my wardrobe.
It’s all part of growing up
The downfall of millennials as the ‘it’ generation is symptomatic of the inevitable — getting old. It’s the natural evolution of generations, with one always superseding another as everyone ages, much the same way millennials overtook Gen X as a hot topic around the time social media emerged.
Millennials are having a difficult time reckoning with getting older. As my 29-year-old roommate said when I mentioned I was writing this piece: “That’s so sad!” followed by a deadpanned, “I’m not into this article.”
I, too, lamented to my therapist about how my world is going to end when I turn 30 this year. Overly dramatic, sure, but my peers and I are grappling with a major life transition that we may not be ready for — not the fact that Gen Z is making fun of us.
“It reinforces to many millennials that they themselves are entering a new life stage, whether that’s marriage or kids or buying houses or seeing friends doing that,” Dorsey said, describing it as an uncomfortable adjustment. “There’s this real sense of getting older, heightened when the new generation who are now adults is telling you that you’re older and outdated.”
Aging comes with societal pressure to settle into major life events like buying a house or having kids. Many millennials feel stressed that we’re unable to do so because of all the economic pills we’ve had to swallow. We’re also confronting the fact that our parents are aging, too, as we worry about their health risks during the pandemic.
The pandemic has forced millennials to grow up. While still young by many measures, we’re old enough to ponder existential life questions while also questioning past choices — whether a financial regret, or our skinny jeans.
The ironic part of millennials’ newfound uncoolness at the hands of Gen Z is that the latter doesn’t really care about being cool at all. Gen Z may enjoy their time in the limelight for now — until Generation C takes over.