Relax, boomer: Gen Z and the millennials have turned on one another

Skinny jeans, Harry Potter and hair partings are all in the firing line

“Sjjjkkssk” might look like a typo. But it’s the latest symbol of the intergenerational culture wars. Lol is out of fashion; the laughing emoji so 2016. Now Generation Z – roughly considered to be those born between 1996 and 2012 – indicate their online laughter by randomly mashing their keyboards.

Keeping up with the vertiginous changes in youth culture is no small task. The skinny jean, once a totem of the hipster and now a wardrobe staple of every millennial, is a subject of Gen-Z derision. Hair partings, Harry Potter, the prolific use of the word “doggo” (an alternative to the more traditional term “dog”) are all mercilessly mocked. The younger, most digitally apt generation are on a warpath, poised to ridicule every cultural shibboleth millennials have long held dear.

The youngest have always been the trendsetters, the righteous arbiters of what is cool or not. Ten years ago millennials got to set the rule book, in the 1990s it was so-called Generation X and their standard bearers – Kate Moss, Molly Ringwald, Kurt Cobain. Move on, it’s our turn, an 18-year-old might tell you. Ditch the skinny jeans in favour of a looser fit if you want to be accepted.

It makes sense for this particular culture war to be forged over matters of taste and style. We have long used clothes, and broader aesthetic values, to indicate our differences from one another. And as Gen-Z takes the reins from millennials, establishing new mores, we are witnessing a normal transfer of cultural power play out over emojis, jeans and preferred social media platforms (Instagram is out, TikTok is in).

It may be easy to dismiss this as a frivolous surface level evolution. Teenagers are mercurial; trends leave before you have even realised they arrived. This is no more reflective of actual social change than the popularisation of grunge and heroin-chic in the 1990s, you might argue.

Except these kinds of aesthetic concerns have always been indicators of societal evolution that goes far deeper than the clothes we use as symbols. The androgynous bob of the 1920s was a neat rejection of harshly drawn Victorian gender roles, Jessica Glasscock, a professor at the Parsons School of Design, points out. And the 1960s miniskirt a reflection of sexual liberation. While the fault lines of the millennial vs Gen Z saga appear to fall across simple questions of style, the rift is deeper.

It is a mistake to assume cultural, political, and economic commonality between broadly drawn age groups

And one example stands out among the rest. Anxiety over the climate crisis is rife among teenagers and young adults. Fittingly, this anxiety is accompanied with a repudiation of fast fashion, and the renaissance of second-hand shopping (evidenced by hugely popular platforms for selling second-hand clothes like DePop). The most significant disagreement, says Gen-Z academic Corey Seemiller, is not over what garments are cool or not, but rather about “the ethics of consumption”.

And it is not just about clothes. The focus on millennials’ emoji usage is reflective of fast-changing linguistic standards, catalysed by social media. And social media, not newspapers or TV, is continuing to grow as the primary source of news for young people. It is evidence of a seismic cultural shift, the effects of which have yet to fully reveal themselves.

Culture war

As this intergenerational argument simmers away, “boomers” can breathe a welcome sigh of relief. It was only last year that the post-war generation were the subject of millennial and Gen-Z ire, typified by the ubiquity of the online retort “ok boomer”. The masterfully crafted phrase was designed to belittle the political concerns of the over 55s with characteristic Gen-Z insouciance. And it was deployed indiscriminately by the young to express exasperation at their older, wealthier, broadly more conservative counterparts.

It is not hard to see where this angst towards boomers came from. The hostile rental market, increasing political polarisation (abetted by social media), and angst over climate change contribute to the tedious culture war. In response, millennials and Gen-Z were dismissed as snowflakes; obsessed with passing fads from veganism to Greta Thunberg; their fixation on social media utterly deleterious to the fabric of society.

Amid this mudslinging is something more pressing than simple generational tussling, or harmlessly poking fun at your older and lamer forbearers. It is a mistake to assume cultural, political, and economic commonality between broadly drawn age groups.

A working class millennial likely has more in common with a working class 60 year old than they do with a rich person their own age. There are old socialists and young conservatives, too. Carving up the world into crassly-rendered generational chunks erodes a litany of forces we need to consider to make sense of the world – geography, class and religion, to name but a few.

Gen Z forging a personal style, and a mode of communication, that is distinct from millennials is nothing unique. And soon they will be replaced as the next generation comes snapping at their heels. But as long as intergenerational resentment is all the rage, it is worthwhile to inject some nuance into the discussion.