Have you heard? Apparently if you have a side part (guilty), wear skinny jeans (guilty), or use the laughing emoji (so guilty), then you are officially over-the-hill. Every millennial who saw those TikTok videos or heard Ryan Seacrest hemming and hawing over the audacity of Gen Z’s declaration on Virgin Radio scoffed at the news, and let’s be honest, wound up slightly offended. Weren’t millennials the next generation? The hip, young, trendy generation? They, um, WE are not OLD. Our parents are old. When in the world did we get old?
Let’s backtrack. A generation is around every 15 years, although not always because it is not exactly a concise art form. ‘Micro generations’ tend to pop up because the few years on either end of a generation are tricky in that people born in those years tend to identify with ideologies, fashion, music, and trends from two different generations.
For example, someone born in 1981, while technically a millennial, will still be able to identify with a few things from Gen X, like music, fashion, and hair preferences. Also worth noting is that those born in the first millennial years, like a Gen Xer, can still remember life before the huge shift that came with the age of internet, social media, and cell phones, but were the ones who actually discovered, adapted, and implemented the change. In other words, they had analog childhoods but a digital adulthood.
We lump people in generations based on the year they were born, not on how old they are because, you know, we get older every year. Even Boomers were considered the youngsters at one point in time. Your generation grows with you, and as you get older, begin working, and maybe start a family, your wants and needs become different than what they were.
So what are the generations? People argue a few years here and there, but in general, here are where the lines divide (or are blurred, depending on how you look at it):
- Silent Generation – Born 1928-1945
- Baby Boomers – Born between 1946-1964
- Micro generation – Generation Jones – Born between 1955-1965
- Gen X – Born between 1965-1980
- Micro generation – Xennials – Born between 1977-1985
- Millennials (also called Gen Y) – Born between 1981-1996
- Gen Z – Born between 1997-2012(ish)
- Gen Alpha – Born after 2010
So when it started trending that Gen Zers were calling out millennials “over the hill” because of a few things we dearly love – i.e. don’t come for my side part – quite a few of us were caught unaware, perhaps a little bit annoyed, but mostly affronted that we were being lumped together with – gasp! – our parents.
But the problem is, on some levels, that doesn’t really jive with what we know of Gen Z. Personally speaking, the Gen Zers I have the privilege of interacting with are open-minded, accepting, socially and politically conscious (and savvy), intelligent, curious, and overall wonderful human beings.
The media quickly took up the charge and millennials were busy sharing article after article and video after video about ‘oh those Gen Zers think they’re so cool’ and ‘they think they invented the baggy pants when we were rocking them in the 90s,’ and a bunch of Gen Zers were like, ‘Wait a minute. We don’t even care what you wear,’ ‘That’s not us!’ and ‘Why is nobody listening to us!’
We decided to take a pause from the media frenzy and actually talk to some Gen Zers about side parts, skinny jeans, and our favorite laughing emoji. So we sat down with a focus group, if you will, and listened. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
The first thing they wanted us to understand was that they didn’t represent the entire Gen Z population. One of them even said that if she thinks something is ‘ugly’ that doesn’t mean it is necessarily ‘ugly,’ it just isn’t her preference; someone else may think it is beautiful. The fact that these teenagers were so cognizant that their opinion was not the only valid opinion was not lost on us.
When we asked them about side parts – it should be noted that every single one of them had a center part, except the boys – they just said, “I like the way my hair looks this way.” We laughed together as they convinced me to try parting my hair down the center there and then. Their response was not: “Oh, it looks so much better when you have a center part.” It literally was, “You look the same. See, no big deal. But if you want to flip your hair to the side, that’s fine. It still looks good. However you want your hair to look should be up to you.”
Which is true. It should be up to me to part my hair in whatever way works for me.
What about the laughing emoji? It’s so perfect when we want to express that we find someone funny. Their answer floored us. They said that the laughing emoji is the quickest way to end a conversation. It just shows the person you’re talking to that you’re not really listening to them or interested in the conversation. “It’s like a half-assed laugh.” By using the laughing emoji, you essentially shut down the conversation.
Whereas, according to them, if you type out “HAHAHAHAHAHAH” or even “LOLOLOLOLOL”, you are showing the person that you can take the time to respond to them because you truly find them funny and are present and interested in the conversation. But use just an emoji and boom, the conversation has come to a standstill. Although, they did point out that if you put the emoji in with a phrase, then it is ok, but by itself it is rude. To be quite honest, we’d never thought of it that way, but they do have a point. They also said if you know the person well you can have full conversations with just emojis – but never the laughing one. Noted.
Again, it was not lost on us that the emphasis was on the other person – making sure the other person felt valued and appreciated and not disregarded. The reason they reject the laughing emoji is an empathetic one.
However, it was when we asked about the skinny jeans that the conversation plunged deeper than we expected. Not a single one of them owns a pair of skinny jeans, but they had a very good reason for it. Not only did they say they were uncomfortable, but they don’t like the message of skinny jeans. “Why do I have to look a certain way to be thought of as beautiful?,” one girl asked. “Why is there so much pressure to be skinny?”
“‘Why do I have to adapt to your beauty standard?”
“I’m told constantly by media and magazines what I have to look like. I see the pictures. I have to be skinny or ‘slim-thick.’ Why can’t I just be me?”
“I know I’m beautiful just as I am. But I still feel so much pressure to look a certain way: Skinny. White.”
“There are creams back in my home country to make me whiter. And it’s still a thing. And people still use them. And the whiter you are, the prettier you’re thought to be.”
“I’m tired of people telling me I have to dress a certain way to look good or look fashionable. I just want to be comfortable. Why can’t that be fashionable?”
“The trends change every week. I can’t keep up with it! It’s too expensive. By the time I buy last week’s trend, something is new this week. I can’t afford to wear fashion. So I’ll just wear what I want.”
“It’s all marketing. To make us spend more. The job of the beauty industry feels like it’s meant to make us feel bad about ourselves no matter what we look like. If you’re skinny, you need to be slim-thick. If you’re any kind of curvy, you need to be skinny. If you’re brown, you should be white. If you’re white you should tan. If you have curly hair, you need to straighten it. If you have straight hair, you need to curl it. We are just being told that what we are isn’t good enough. And I’m sick of feeling this way and people telling me that I’m not good enough.”
We wanted to reach through the Zoom camera and hug them. We wanted to cry out that they were right. They are beautiful, and they should never feel less than anything but perfectly and wonderfully made. But the truth is, are we part of the problem?
This is a fashion and beauty magazine. We love fashion. We love beauty. We celebrate all the different ways we are beautiful as a team and as a people, and we try to be inclusive with our content and images. But is it enough?
We asked them what they wanted to see more in the media. They said they want to see the “abolishing of the beauty standard”, “more love, not so much hate”, and “more tolerance of everything except intolerance.”
They said they felt anxious in society. They said they feel a tremendous burden to be perfect and to look perfect. We asked them why, and they said because online, everyone can craft a perfect image of themselves. Take one thousand pictures, but you only use the one good one. Online, they can take the time they need, even if they’re texting, to write a witty response, say something clever, or craft a specific image. In person, they can’t do that because it’s real, and that makes them anxious. They feel safer behind their phones.
For a generation wanting to break free from any and all stereotypes, their dependence online becomes their modern-day mask, and they are desperate to break free in any way they can. By parting their hair down the center. Or refusing to wear skinny jeans. By rejecting the favored emoji. When all they really want is to be seen, to be accepted as they are, and to make the world a better place for the next generation.
As a final question, we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“Why do people keep asking me what I want to be when I grow up,” one girl said. “I don’t know what I want to be. I know WHO I want to be.”
“Who do you want to be?,” I continued.
“I want to be someone that my 17-year-old self will be proud of.”
“I want to be the best version of myself I can be.”
“I want to be free to be who I am.”
This should be what defines this generation. For them, it isn’t about what they are or what they’re wearing or what the scale says. It is most certainly about who they are. Their acceptance of people as they are, their fight to break down stereotypes – including the ones that are thrust upon them by offended millennials – their need to fight gender inequality, and social injustice, and to save our planet should be the defining attributes of Gen Z. Not how they wear their hair, or what emojis they use. This generation gives us hope.