For the past few weeks, people in their 30s and early 40s have been acting out a strange rivalry with teenagers on TikTok. So called Millennials and Gen Z-ers have taken it upon themselves to defend their respective generations, and clown on each other. Although it's a strange sight to see, it's also a very normal kind of generational friction that has gone viral repeatedly over the last few years.
As a Millennial, this whole phenomenon has been pretty confusing. It wasn't so long ago that Boomers and Gen Xers, the two generations preceding mine, were lambasting us for being self-centered and lazy. The gripes that Millennials appear to have with Gen Z are even more trivia, giving the strange back and forth a less than genuine, performative feel. For the most part, this has to do with Gen Zers not relating to or liking the culture that Millennials ushered in during the early 2000s. According to Millennials on TikTok, Gen Zers have dismissed side parts, Eminem, and skinny jeans, and in response, Millennials have aggressively hit them back, though in very embarrassing ways.
All of this is frustrating, because beefs between generations are a tired trope that has repeated itself over and over again. Academic studies have shown that as people get older, they believe that the youth are lacking, unintelligent, have no taste, don’t know struggle, and so on and so forth. None of this is actually true, of course. In a study published in 2019, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that intelligent people, as they age, believe that kids are less intelligent than they were; people who like to read believe younger generations don’t enjoy reading or don’t read much at all; people who had authoritarian tendencies increasingly believed that younger generations don’t respect their elders.
“In five studies, we found evidence of a general tendency to disparage the present youth across traits and a trait-specific tendency to see today’s youth as especially lacking on those traits on which one particularly excels,” the authors wrote. “Excelling on a dimension also leads people to project back to both themselves and their peers in the past, believing, for example, ‘because I like to read now everyone liked to read when I was a child.’”
Extrapolated out, this means that Millennials may have a tendency to believe that everyone liked Eminem back in the day, or that they actually looked good in skinny jeans. The authors said that they believe that “the kids” are not actually getting any worse at really anything, and very likely are improving: “The same complaints have been leveled against youth of the day for the past 2500 years; this would imply a steady deterioration over millennia, which seems highly unlikely,” they wrote, adding that an aging population’s disdain for younger people and their tastes and abilities are based on “a fundamental illusion.”
“'Gen Z' or 'Millennial' are merely descriptors used to explain people by age,” Joseph Michael Czabovsky, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies social media and politics, told Motherboard. “Many people use categories—be it gender, one's nationality, a political party, or a generation—to explain a large amount of people in a rather simple manner. Sometimes, these broad terms can have meaning if there are big, broad trends that fit most people within that group. But, of course, they can often be more problematic than they're worth.”
While it is true that Gen Zers have lived their entire lives with access to the internet, for instance, a viral TikTok or even a series of viral memes can’t really be used to generalize such a huge number of people.
“Some Millennials are 27. Some are 40. Think about how different many people's lives are at those points in their lives,” Czabovsky said. “Some are still just starting full-time work. Others are already thinking about retirement. So, a 27-year-old Millennial may be more like an older Gen Z'er. Or, the 40-year-old Millennial may be closer to a young Gen-X'er. But, this nuance often gets lost by the simplistic reduction of people.”
Even if generations are an imperfect way to describe oneself and others, looking at this so-called feud in terms of these age groups is illuminating. Is it all that surprising that Gen Zers, who are in their early 20s at their oldest, don't have much in common with people a decade older than them?
All of this said, Gen Z and Millennials—generally speaking— are interested in different trends, at least on social media. Skinny jeans and side parts now feel dated to younger people, which is a natural part of the tides of fashion. It’s bizarre, and keeping with the UC-Santa Barbara study, that Millennials take such offense to this.
“Micro trends can emerge from a trending aesthetic on TikTok, an influencer-beloved accessory on Instagram, a viral celebrity look, etc. They tend to have a shorter lifespan and are in response to an immediate cultural or political moment, but can come back around even decades later,” Dara Prant, market editor at Fashionista, said. “Macro trends have to do more with shifts in society/lifestyle—think the pandemic-fueled sweatpants craze.”
According to Prant, Gen Z’s taste in fashion differs strongly from Millennials, and that is reflected in their use of social media as well.
“Millennial fashion and beauty influencers like to share their lives through a very pretty filtered lens, whereas the Gen Z tastemakers are all about embracing their flaws,” Prant said, pointing to YouTuber Emma Chamberlain as a good example of an unvarnished Gen Z influencer. “I think the younger demographic doesn't care for manicured versions of people—they want the real thing, perhaps because they are digital natives and have always had the ability to hide behind the internet.”
“With the rise of TikTok, it seems like Gen Zers are coming up with the trends and millennials are struggling a bit to keep up,” Prant continued. “But I certainly think Millennials are taking cues from the younger generation in hopes of staying relevant and 'cool' and those in Gen Z are making things up as they go, without caring what the elder generation is up to.”
Mark Brill, senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University, said that intergenerational spats are as old as Socrates complaining that the youngsters of ancient Greece didn't respect their elders. The only thing unique about what's going on between Gen Z and Millennials is the platform that it's playing out on.
“The big change now is that the generational conflict is being acted out in social media between two groups that are digital natives,” Brill said. “It wasn’t that long ago when we saw the ‘OK Boomer’ trend, but to a large extent that older generation were less involved with social channels. The Boomers probably just sulked at home. Millennials, on the other hand, have been on social media for all of their adult lives. They are quick to respond and defend their peers in channels they understand well.”