To the happy few
... who were also born in the early '90s
What are the differences between Millennials and Gen Zs?
This is a question I tried to answer for a client last year when conducting a study on how social media and dating apps have transformed the ways we interact with one another. It was an opportunity for me to learn about new social practices such as “Instagram dating” (very different from matching with a person online to then meet them in real life), or “finstas” (the “fake” Instagram accounts Gen Zs keep private so they can act real, as opposed to their performative “real” Instagram account).
Some of the practices specific to Gen Zs weren’t all unfamiliar however: I too resort to voice notes, as picking up the phone to spontaneously call someone these days is reserved for psychopaths. I have made many online and offline friends on Instagram. And I have been using Snapchat since 2013 (long enough to have seen the birth of face filters – remember the rainbow vomit one?) for I enjoy the app, and because it is by far the most efficient channel through which I can communicate with my 18 year-old brother; but the truth is that none of my friends my age really use it.
Whilst my 22 year-old sister alone was a great focus group to confirm some of my research insights, I also discovered that not all aspects of Gen Z culture can solely be based on age, otherwise how would you explain that she’s only just discovered Olivia Rodrigo’s music, which I’ve been familiar with since her song “Driver’s License” went viral on TikTok 8 months ago? Indeed, ever since the start of lockdown, my younger sister has found my fascination for TikTok “laughable” and has yet to jump on that bandwagon. Meanwhile I’ve been gobbling up its content like a sponge, turning it into a new frame of reference that I struggle to share with my peers.
“You know, this TikTok trend, which plays with Dua Lipa’s ‘You want me / I want you baby’ lyric”, I say as they stare at me blankly.
I have indeed become a daily user of this “Gen Z” app, which provides me with great entertainment of course, but also tips & tricks, insights, Taylor Swift conspiracy theories (in the depths of “Swift Tok”), and above all ideas and inspiration. There’s something about this app, which promotes content over people, as opposed to Instagram, that creatively enables its users. It doesn’t make me aspire to have the life that some stranger on the internet has presented to me as perfect, but rather to make as imaginative, fun and beautiful things as they are creating on the app. This has allowed me to discover my current favourite creators, including Madelaine Turner, whose short films are, as she calls them, “pastiche as hell”. Her Jane Austen parody of Mean Girls, “Contemptible Ladies”, or her “Gothic Girl” take on Twilight are among my favourite videos on TikTok.
What fascinates me most about her content is how accurately its intertextuality speaks to me. I believe Madelaine and I were both born in 1994, and therefore share a whole bunch of references when it comes to books, music, TV shows, etc. So much so that I can decode, a little in spite of myself, every detail of her “Scammer” video, in hommage to Caroline Calloway (who once again, gets away with having everyone recount her narrative, but herself).
This got me to dwell upon my own references growing up in pre- and post-internet times, and to write a hopefully relatable “moodboard” of what that was like. But before I jump into it, here’s a playlist I concocted for you to #ProustYourself, if like me you were a child in the ‘90s and teen in the 2000s.
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“On Wednesdays we wear pink.” “You can’t sit with us!” “She doesn’t even go here!”
Do you ever throw these lines when the right context presents itself? Because I do, all the time! Among the many films about girlhood in the late ‘90s and early 2000s (Clueless, The Cheetah Girls, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, A Cinderella Story, the list goes on), The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, were so iconic they elevated Lindsey Lohan to the rank of Audrey Hepburn of our childhood, and she deserves an honorary award for it.
While still on the subject of girly narratives (back when I didn’t know “girly” as a dirty word for things girls like – because what was wrong with the things I liked? – but a category that placed girls in the center of stories and that both girls and boys could enjoy): did you and your friends fight over who got to play Sam when you pretended your were Totally Spies? or Powerpuff Girls, W.I.T.C.H. and later on Charmed’s Halliwell sisters?
I once made my own “Book of Shadows” by wetting the pages of a large notebook with cold tea because I was such a fan of Charmed, although it was still a little too PG-13 for the 9 year-old me to openly watch it with my parents present in the house at the time. This sex taboo gradually faded over the years: I was prepped with One Tree Hill (which, looking back, clearly over-sexualised its female teen characters, and which the actresses have now confirmed on their rewatch podcast, confessing how uncomfortable and conflicted they felt at the time they were making the show) so that by the time Gossip Girl became popular, I was ready for the “mind-blowingly inappropriate” series, as boasted in its own marketing.
Speaking of inappropriate marketing, remember when Abercrombie & Fitch was the biggest brand ever? I remember the opening of the London shop in Savile Row being the most advertised event in the city, and that all the kids at my school (including myself) were so excited to queue for a shop that could give them a taste of night club: loud music, very little dressed people, and dark lights, which in fact made it impossible to really know the colour of that £100 shirt you were buying. And of course, there was that corner with comfy armchairs for parents to wait while you tried on pungent clothes in changing rooms with racy pictures on display.
It was the time of MSN, Bebo (my username was P@µ£!n€ by the way), skyblogs and the early days of YouTube, starring Michelle Phan, Epic Meal Time and Jenna Marbles (who invented “I got three looks, and that’s it”, years before it would trend on TikTok). A time when multimedia shops like HMV, Virgin Megastores, or Fnac (in France) were the most exciting places to be, to browse through CDs, DVDs and the very best: DVD box sets, which were then the only portal to legally binge TV shows. It was the time of iPods and iTunes libraries with a finite musical repertoire that you’d just have to listen to over and over, like the original songs of High School Musical (1, 2 and 3 please) and all the punk rock bands who would become the soundtrack to your emo phase:
a) My Chemical Romance
b) Linkin Park
c) Simple Plan
d) Green Day
e) Fall Out Boy
f) Sum 41 (whose lead singer was married with other icon Avril Lavigne at the time)
g) all of the above
Nobody expected us to read anything better than Twilight, Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries and other cheesy novels, and our biggest dilemma was having to choose between iPhone and Blackberry – which was hard because Blackberries had Blackberry Messenger, or “BBM”.
It was an innocent age, absent of Instagram dictates, face filters, data fed digital advertising, and the non-stop debates about cancel culture on Twitter (or rather, about what cancel culture even is). Thanks internet…
But it was also a time we didn’t question the only beauty standard we were presented or even thought of discussing the representation of women, POC, LGBTQ and other minorities across media and industries. And for that, internet deserves some credit.
When I try to think about what’s specific about my generation these days (aside from the ridiculous debt we’re famously crawling under due to avocado toasts and lattes – sorry scratch that, the real culprit is our higher education bill) I find it more difficult to identify specific cultural cues that band us together. It’s much easier for us to look back on the things we had in common growing up when we used to be confined in the same school playground that narrowly shaped the way we viewed the world. Fortunately, we’ve since been able to grow into adults with our own tastes, life trajectories and social circles.
However, as a common denominator for all, internet has become a much more open playground, which has given us a portal to relate and sometimes even create deep connections with unexpected people from all over the world who share the same fascinations for sourdough, DIY, books, Excel formulas and whatever weird niche you’re into. But by doing so, I find that it has also blurred the lines which used to separate generations, and even more so in the age of Covid.
As I’ve learnt, Gen Zs have their own particularities and so there are many things that I will never be able to share with them. They’ll never know what it’s like to blow on a CD or a DVD to avoid annoying glitches (although vinyles and cassette tapes are making a come back so never say never) and there is a lot of Gen Z slang I will most likely never understand. But I also feel like the unprecedented experience of lockdown in 2020 drove us all into the same corners of the internet, at the exact same time, thus giving us an opportunity to share the same cultural codes and relate with one another across generations. We all relied on YouTube workout videos to do jumping jacks in our living room, or baked the same cookie recipes, or watched the same Netflix shows, or dove head first into TikTok rabbit holes. Whether it was what we consumed, or the platforms we consumed it on, lockdown gave us all a similar reference frame to understand memes, jokes, dances, and other cultural trends.
This lockdown phenomenon shed light on the general private joke potential of TikTok, which is what fascinates me most about this app. Although it has been branded as a “Gen Z” platform because they were the first ones on it, lockdown certainly revolutionised it as now anyone who’s familiar with the app and understands its codes can use the same references (a sound, an epic Michael Scott or Friends clip, a video of a puppy, etc.) and tell something different which other users will be able to understand. TikTok is a playground where cultures meet and blend with one another (which has caused some interesting cultural appropriation debates, but linguistics professor John McWhorter writes about it much more intelligently than I ever will) to create a new form of modern culture, which can be understood not by the people of a certain age group, social class, or geography, but by the people who just happened to be online at the same point in time.
In blurring cultural lines between generations, TikTok is certainly making it harder to answer the question “What are the differences between Millennials and Gen Zs?”, especially for people like me who are existentially confused about whether they identify as Millennial or as Gen Z, as parodied in this video. But perhaps the very notion of being confused about which generation you identify as is a distinctive cue of ‘90s kids, who weren’t entirely bottle-fed by the internet but quickly fell into its cultural web.
On that note, I’ve just ordered the vinyl record of Olivia Rodrigo’s album Sour which I rely on to understand Gen Z experience better. And if that doesn’t illustrate generational confusion, I don’t know what will!
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Image credit: Mean Girls (2003)