I am sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing a bucket hat, trying to be chill. I rest my chin in my hands and try to think chill thoughts, which is hard, because I am wearing mint flatform Crocs, studded with pineapples and watermelons, and a fluffy green knit that feels more like a pet than a cardigan. But I do my best, because being chill is essential if I am to get into character.
The term “chill” has come up a lot during this past week in which I – one of the world’s oldest millennials at 39 – am trying to be more generation Z. I’m learning the ways of the generation beneath mine, who, according to the US thinktank the Pew Research Center, were born between 1997 and 2012, and are taking over from millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) as the cohort in charge of the internet.
As a fashion editor, I’ve spent the past eight years with my trend-detecting antenna on. I’ve chased Katy Perry fans across fields at Glastonbury to pose the big questions – why bumbags, why now? – and run backstage to ask designers why they were feeling palazzo pants this season.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed that all trends seem to point to generation Z, from the rise of secondhand clothes shopping app Depop, recently acquired by Etsy for £1bn, to the dominance of TikTok, which has about 1.1 billion active users, and estimates that 60% of its US users are aged between 16 and 24. Millennials – once a byword for popular culture and youth – are barely getting a look-in.
This passing of the baton hasn’t gone unnoticed by generation Zers. Instead, they have been mercilessly skewering passé millennial taste in viral posts online. They have been slamming Live, Laugh, Love slogans on merchandise; skinny jeans; crying-while-laughing emojis; and side-parted hair – the very hair that is on my head. They have been calling such things “cheugy”, the new word for basic, a term I was until recently too cheugy to know. I almost spat out my avocado on toast when I read about it on Twitter.
This may seem an unlikely battle at first. Aren’t generation gaps supposed to be about kids pushing back against the lives of their parents? Instead, this is about two rival cohorts, more closely matched in age, jostling for supremacy in the noisy public sphere of social media.
It is also about slating millennials, which – poor us – is nothing new. We are, remember, entitled, narcissistic and fame-obsessed, owing to the deadly combination of doting parents, reality TV and social media. Like Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s Girls (Hannah is a very millennial name), we’re constantly whining, because our early adult years – dented by the 2008 financial crisis – have not lived up to the expectations we formed as we grew up bingeing Sex And The City.
The received wisdom about generation Z, on the other hand, is that they are a force for good. They are Greta Thunberg (born in 2003), Billie Eilish (2001) and Malala Yousafzai (1997). They use social media not to post selfies, but to mobilise. They pole-vaulted the climate crisis up the news agenda with their school strikes. They drink less and even have fewer unplanned pregnancies.
What could I learn from them? I recruited a panel to advise me on how to dress – and live – a bit more like them.
“There is definitely a feeling among my peers that the world is going to end,” says my first panellist, creative director and consultant Lula Ososki, with what I come to recognise as a classic gen-Z combination of bleakness and optimism. “That sounds really sombre, but part of having that feeling means wanting to do positive things, to go out there and protest and make the world better.”
Ososki is, at 24, a bit ancient – technically three months over the generation-Z threshold – but she works with “gen-Z thinktank” Irregular Labs, so is perfectly placed to break it down for me, anthropologically.
She thinks generation Z are more likely to have “a distrust of existing systems, whether work or education, and a sense that we don’t need institutions”, having come of age in the era of Trump and “fake news”. Ososki did not go to university, but taught herself coding and Photoshop using YouTube, forums and blogs. She sees many of her friends doing the same, and believes that, after the past year’s Covid-enforced home schooling, the number of generation Zers self-educating will only increase.
“We’re comfortable with this unstable, crazy world,” she continues, “and with growing up on social media, where you’re seeing everything all the time.” Generation Z – the oldest of whom was 10 when the iPhone was launched – are social media virtuosos, whereas we millennials had to learn on the job. She sees a tendency to “think fluidly about everything”: not just about gender, but about work and social media. For example, on Instagram many of her peers also have a “Finsta” (a fake account) for close friends, as well as their main feed. “It’s an explicit push against the algorithms – kind of about having multiple versions of yourself, rather than one linear, polished version.”
Mya-Rose Craig, 19, is another impressive generation Z voice who, like most of my interviewees, has an excellent centre parting. Craig started a blog – as Birdgirl – at 11 years old and, at 14, launched a charity called Black2Nature, giving mainly ethnic-minority, inner-city children access to the countryside. Her book, We Have A Dream, highlighting young BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people of colour) environmentalists from around the world, comes out on 5 August. She does a lot of campaigning about climate change and says: “As I got older, there was less of a feeling of ‘this is going to get sorted out’, so, like many my age, I decided I was going to take it upon myself to make it very clear that this is an issue my generation cares about.”
Serena Brown, 23, is a rising photography star; she took the pictures for this article. She also wants to be a force for good. “I always want to make work that feels like it is making a change,” she says of her photographs, which celebrate the beauty in a varied range of body shapes and ethnicities.
Izzy Keane, 24, is a campaigner and co-founder of Izzy Wheels, a company that makes colourful, fashion-inspired wheelchair accessories. She believes that generation Z is particularly progressive and inclusive. “My generation is really known for breaking down barriers,” she says, flagging the high participation of young people in the marriage equality referendum in Ireland as one example. “So much has happened within the time that we have been aware citizens, good and bad. It makes us think about things and realise that we have a part to play in making them better.” In her own work and life, she says, “In all honesty I find it very easy to speak about my disability to gen Z people because I don’t expect them to have preconceived notions about it, and that’s such a comfort.”
They all have their own theories about what divides the warring generations. Millennials, suggests Ososki, tend to find “more of a comfort in things that are slightly performative. Of doing things for show, rather than because you give a shit – a sense of ‘I’m wearing pink for the Women’s March!’” She cites Kendall Jenner (a millennial, just, born in 1995) and her much-criticised 2017 Pepsi ad, which was accused of co-opting protest movements, as the classic example.
Craig, meanwhile, perceives millennials as less politicised, which she believes stems from the insecurity engendered by the 2008 stock market crash. “All the millennials I know are super hardworking, whereas a lot of generation Z want really radical change and are questioning why we are supposed to be dreaming of work and labour in the first place.”
Brown says some millennials can be a bit old-fashioned. “They don’t really pick up on how society has progressed,” she says. “It’s a bit sad, to see conversations that go on between generations about mental health.” Millennials calling generation Z “snowflakes” is really not fair, she points out, given that the younger group are the first generation who – thanks to constant connectivity – have had to absorb “all the awful things happening all the time. You can end up super depressed and miserable.”
It’s funny to hear generation Zers talk about millennials as being cliched and apathetic, though, sadly, the more I hear of it, the more I feel a bit seen. I didn’t think of myself as a stereotypical millennial – not least because I’m on the cusp of generation X and, like many women my age, no longer youthful and carefree, but harried, being both an unpaid carer and a mother of two. But some of the criticism chimes.
For example, I think of myself as someone who doesn’t really wear trends. I have cultivated a look, heavy on jumpers and straight-leg jeans, that I hope I won’t update often, for reasons of bandwidth, ethics and budget. But there are things I own that exactly reflect the look so disdained by generation Z: skinny jeans, of course, and tops with quotes on them (mine says I Woke Up Like This.) Also, I am not a big selfie-taker, but I have found myself doing Instagrammy things like going to brunch, absent-mindedly moving the salt and pepper pots into a pleasing configuration and posting a picture of them.
Finally, I consider myself to be somewhat politically engaged, and hope I am ethical and inclusive in work and day-to-day life. But during the past 12 months, I haven’t been on a march, or even to the refill shop, or written to my MP about anything. Experimenting with generation Z life for a bit could be what I need to jolt me out of my programming.
Brown tells me that TikTok is essential to the authentic generation Z experience. “I know that on there I’ll actually be happy and laugh. It’s a more lighthearted and, for me, less intense place to be,” she says. On Instagram she can fall into the trap of comparing herself with others. “I hope we are coming to the end of that, to be honest,” she says. “Increasingly it has only become useful when you’re selling or promoting something.”
When I download TikTok, I miss Instagram’s gloss. In fact, TikTok appalls me at first, presenting videos of crashed cars and people swearing beneath grey English skies, or washing their sofa cushions. I am urged to follow Paul Chuckle and Gary Barlow. But you need to like and watch videos for TikTok’s algorithms to learn your taste.
Within two days the app cottons on, and my feed becomes a diverse mixture of Taiwanese food hacks, Texan grandmas giving life advice, and clips of Olivia Colman. Soon it becomes too absorbing, stealing hours from me, as though I have attached my brain directly to a portal. I keep going back, in the evenings after the kids are asleep, and staying up later than I should. This, I am told, is all standard gen-Z behaviour.
I try to adopt their tone online: a surreal sort of gallows humour, which my panel tell me can be necessary, because being generation Z can feel like a bit much, with the rolling ticker-tape of bad news scrolling before their eyes.
I set up a Finsta, to which I invite six friends. It is liberating at first. With no professional contacts looking over my shoulder, I post a slightly rude joke and an embarrassing childhood picture. The paucity of likes suggests that I have confused my mates. Either that, or my attempt to rebel against Instagram’s algorithms by not following my friends back has rendered me invisible.
I try to be more idiosyncratic with my emojis, too, following my panel’s lead. (Brown favours the heart on fire and a certain kind of twisted face which will “soften the blow when I am saying something a bit rogue”, while Craig is a fan of the skull and the side eye.) I throw a few arbitrary puffer fish into my WhatsApp chats, leaving my friends truly baffled.
Inspired by my interviewees, I think about how I could do a bit more good in the world. I go into activist mode: I write to my MP regarding the Cop26 climate conference and about social care, and to Primark and & Other Stories about installing repair stations. I donate to Greenpeace. And then I go back on TikTok, because I am addicted now, and watch a video of someone doing a pencil drawing of a tiger.
Finally, I try some of the TikTok food hacks that have intrigued me. I make Cloud Bread, a meringue-like fluff which tastes of nothing, and decide I don’t have time for these kinds of japes. I am happier making cubes of iced espresso, because it at least feels useful as a hack to avoid watery bits at the end of an iced coffee.
When I go back to Instagram, it feels stilted, its carefully constructed images like something from a corporate brochure. The platform is notoriously homogenous, after all: accounts like @insta_repeat chronicle how certain types of images – from latte art to hotdog legs to brunch – have become cliches.
Fashion has been Instagrammed, too. Ososki says that part of the reason generation Z are slating skinny jeans is “pushing against all of this Kim Kardashian formulaic algorithm stuff”.
All of my panel speak about individuality as a central tenet of the gen-Z life. This goes way beyond style, says Craig. “I remember, when I was little, people saying, ‘You’re going to get peer pressured into doing drugs.’ But I know lots of people my age who don’t drink even when they go to parties, and it’s just fine. People just don’t care,” she says, which is one reason, she thinks, that generation Z are described as being more clean-living than their predecessors.
Ososki tells me that generation Z have grown up wary of “top down” trends. They “find their own trends or multiple trends at once, and mash them together”. This coalesces on – where else? – TikTok. This approach to fashion provides a fountain of surprises, creativity and weirdness, throwing up wry, eye-catching, era-splicing looks with excellent names, ranging from Dark Academia (key references: Donna Tartt and Giles from Buffy) to cottagecore (gingham, crochet and ruffles).
For my generation Z glow up, the Guardian’s genius stylist, Peter Bevan (born in 1994), tries to crystallise the difference between the two generations by doubling down on the archetypes. For the “before” (ie millennial) look, that means a side parting (AKA my actual hair), an iced latte, a motivational slogan T-shirt and a millennial-pink shorts-suit. I feel like it’s 2014 and I’m about to stride into a Silicon Valley meeting to pitch an app that will monetise periods.
The generation Z clothes, meanwhile, leave me dizzy with nostalgia, from the tiny lozenge-shaped handbag of the Fendi Baguette-inspired kind I used to own in sixth form, to some very Matrix-y narrow sunglasses, a key staple of the gen-Z-driven Y2K trend. The baggy black raver trousers and slim-fit orange vest layered over a long-sleeved mesh top is my favourite look, and feels like a more stylish version of something I would have worn in my teens, during the 90s, perhaps while vomiting behind a speaker.
Gen-Z makeup also combines eras and moods: 1970s Divine-esque eyeliner with overlined 1990s lips. I like my centre parting a lot, even if I suspect the reason generation Zers love theirs so much is because it makes them look different from us. I try to keep it in place after the shoot, but overnight my hair reverts to the side, as though it has millennial muscle memory.
I ask my panel of advisers for their feedback on my looks. Brown is highly approving of the generation Z styles, particularly the Crocs – “such an important gen-Z staple”. Keane likes the mint green blazer outfit, and the orange top, so she crosses the generational divide. She even concedes that she will mix her parting up, from centre to side, at times. “I don’t really conform to the style of the moment – I wear what I like,” she says, which is very generation Z, confusingly. Craig thinks the millennial green blazer outfit “looks nice, to be honest”, though she’s not into the pink suit. The coffee repels her, too, the idea of “grabbing a £5 coffee on the way to work – I have never had a Starbucks in my life”. She sounds an alarming note on the Crocs outfit: “All of those things individually are or were quite trendy, but together, the trend cycle moves so fast – I don’t usually use this word, but it almost looks cheugy.”
For all this talk about individuality, there are still pressures: internet churn means the trend cycle is “speeding up immensely”, says Craig. “Sometimes micro-trends come or go within a week or two, and there’s a suggestion that everything is in fashion at the same time – the 2000s, 90s, 80s, 70s and 60s, which is exhausting. Even things from the very early 2010s are starting to come back.”
While generation Z love Depop and secondhand clothes, they are also the key demographic for ultrafast fashion sites such as Shein, which are usually cheaper. The knotty battle between ethics and affordable self-expression is particularly fraught for internet-era teens, despite their generation’s campaigning. “Even wearing something from a year or two ago can feel untrendy, and people are always inventing new terms to say that, like cheugy,” says Craig. She has friends who only shop secondhand, but knows plenty more who only shop ultra-fast fashion. “I think it’s going to get so fast that a lot of people break out of that trend cycle completely.” As for her, she has started re-wearing her older sister’s babydoll tops from the 00s.
This disparity underlines the fact that generation Z, like millennials, contains multitudes, and that generational comparisons are wildly simplistic. Race, economic situation, class, health, ability and a multiplicity of other factors are at least as important as your birthdate in forming attitudes. Even within the same family and generation, viewpoints can be wildly different: for every Prince Harry (born in 1984) there is a Prince William (1982).
But there are, undeniably, generation Z tendencies that just weren’t au courant when I was coming of age in the 90s and 00s. This swap has shown me that I have been more influenced by millennial culture than I realised, and made me wonder who I would have been had I grown up 20 years later.
For me, the appeal of the gen-Z lifestyle turns out not to be about the clothes, but the mindset. I have enjoyed being unashamedly more serious, thoughtful and engaged. I have felt as though I had permission to talk about issues I care about without feeling as if I am being a bummer. It feels a bit heavy to be generation Z, but it also feels brimming with possibility. And, having walked a mile in their Crocs, I can see why being chill is the state to which they aspire. They must be knackered.
What would gen Z do?
Millennial Posting a crying-while-laughing emoji
Gen Z Anything else: skull, heart on fire, side-eye, something more obscure
Millennial Taking a selfie at a protest march and posting it to social media
Gen Z Using social media to organise protests across international borders
Millennial Skinny jeans and a loose top
Gen Z Baggy jeans and a little vest
Millennial Presenting your best, glossiest face on Instagram
Gen Z Being hilarious, honest and raw on TikTok
Millennial Buying clothes, mugs, stationery covered in motivational slogans
Gen Z Buying secondhand clothes
Millennial Side partings
Gen Z Centre partings
Millennial Following big trends
Gen Z Making your own micro-trend: try pastelgoth, with a pinch of Y2K and a touch of goblincore