Herald on Sunday
No longer society’s youngest and coolest, Millennials are being attacked by Gen Z and now New Zealand’s biggest TikTok star has weighed in. Why do we care if teenagers think our jeans are cool, asks
Okay Boomers, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the heat’s slowly been coming off you over the past year, with Millennials distracted by a different culture war.
You might still see them as kids but the oldest Millennials are now 40, which means they’ve been in the workforce for 20 years, have their own kids and — if they’re lucky enough to have shaken all the student debt and prised some property out of Boomer hands — are mortgaged up to the hilt.
For a good 10 years, they’ve no longer been society’s youngest, coolest cohort. And Generation Z (born 1997-2012 — think Billie Eilish, Kylie Jenner, Greta Thunberg) aren’t letting Millennials forget it.
A quick recap: they have cancelled skinny jeans, side parts, Gucci belts with the double “G” buckle, T-shirts with the brand printed on the front, Ugg boots, inspirational wall quotes and the crying/laughing face emoji.
Bottomless brunch? Nope. Kmart homewares? Forget it. Smashed avo on toast? So basic.
They’re mainly mocking Millennials on their favourite social media platform, TikTok, which means a large portion of older Millennials don’t even know a war is going on.
Zephan Clarke, 19, who could be New Zealand’s biggest TikTok star with three million followers, says he can’t see the war dissipating any time soon.
“I believe this war will continue until people born in 2010 start getting older and start making fun of the both of us. I would hope Gen Z and the Millennials would form an alliance to take them down. That is something I would 100 per cent be a part of. But before that happens, I have no doubt that the differences between Gen Z and Millennials will continue to widen, such as fashion for example. If Millennials don’t up their game and catch up with their style, they are walking on fire.”
Gen Z has already attacked the vocabulary — “girl boss”, “adulting”, “lol”, “I did a thing”, and much more has been cancelled.
The latest diss is of course cheugy, which, if you don’t know, means someone who is out of date or trying too hard (aka a millennial). And it helpfully comes in noun form (Karen’s such a cheug). In other words, Gen Z’s version of “Okay, Boomer”.
“My mum is very cheugy,” says Clarke. “And pop sockets, I think they are a bit outdated. Not to judge anyone that has one, but maybe take it off. I’m kidding.”
Although he hasn’t engaged in the mocking himself (“there are some cool Millennials”), Clarke says the debate between our two youngest groups was inevitable, with both having grown up with social media.
“I think the generation war exists because of two huge factors. One being it’s so easy to make fun of someone when you are hiding behind a screen. And two, if I was a Millennial I would be pretty annoyed if someone younger than me was making fun of what I thought was cool in my generation. What a stupid war it is, but I can’t help but be amused at some of the funny comments and replies I see on social media during this war.
“Gen Z are definitely the superior generation though and I will stick by that. I can’t wait to see how we change the world.”
Generational debates have been around for centuries. Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley cites concerns from ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC) about the younger generation that could easily have been written today.
“The children now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.”
But Spoonley says generational differences were really underscored by the arrival of Baby Boomers in the 1950s and 1960s who not only disagreed with their parents’ values — anti-war movements and civil rights movements were rife — but also had significant purchasing power, giving rise to new consumption patterns and cultural behaviour.
“The Stones, Beatles and Elvis were all recipients of this new youth subculture and its spending power.”
Spoonley, a sociologist at Massey University, says naming the generations was initially a marketing exercise to define groups who shared similar values, experiences and consumption patterns.
“But more recently, it has become more important because of the significant generational differences in wealth accumulation. The Baby Boomers have benefited from a generous welfare state during their lives and now reach 65 as the wealthiest generation ever, often because of their ownership of property and housing.
“However, Millennials and other younger generations have been loaded up with debt, especially relating to tertiary studies, and have encountered a housing market that has become unaffordable. Their ability to accumulate wealth is significantly hindered by this debt and new costs.”
Millennials’ parents were hit hard by the economic and labour market reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. They saw the lack of loyalty and service from employers and the state, Spoonley says.
“They have a different approach to work, especially in a gig economy. They entered the labour market during the downturn of the 1990s and then again, during the GFC, and have been scarred by this. Labour market scarring occurs when you enter during an economic downturn and then face ongoing challenges of recovering in terms of income levels and job security.”
Millennials have also experienced significant educational debt and are more likely to live at home longer, marry (if at all) later and have their children later (or not at all).
Millennials were coming of age when dial-up internet was still a thing as well as landlines, Bebo, Myspace, illegally streaming movies and when music was in an iPod. But our younger counterparts are the first true digital natives.
“Their values are built around the digital world that they inhabit and a growing concern for environmental issues,” says Spoonley.
“They are significantly better educated than the Baby Boomers in terms of educational credentials and they are much more ethnically diverse — in New Zealand and elsewhere — than any previous generation.”
Many Gen Z members are still going through our educational system and they will experience a very different world of work.
“I say to Year 13 students that 40 per cent of the jobs that currently exist will not exist in 10 years, that 65 per cent of the jobs that they will do have yet to be invented and that they should expect to do 16 to 18 jobs during a working life,” Spoonley says.
“The latter is not simply that they will work for different employers, but they will work in very different sectors and jobs.”
Clarke makes a living from one of those jobs that didn’t exist five years ago (TikTok started in 2017).
The Hamilton teen moved to New Zealand from Lancaster, England four years ago and struggled to fit into a new culture so started creating content online. He dropped out of school at 15 to pursue the career full time.
“I thought if I made other people smile, in return I would start smiling more too.
“Dropping out of school was definitely a huge risk, something my dad was not happy with at the time, he has been an educator for over 20 years and didn’t know anything other than ‘the only way to succeed was to go to school’. I had to work my butt off to show him that you can earn a living and succeed without traditional education.”
He now has nearly four million people following him across TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, and earns enough to live off by partnering with brands and sharing their products on his platforms.
Before Covid, he was travelling to the US several times a year to appear at conventions such as VidCon in Los Angeles.
In 2019, aged just 17, he was granted a work visa to travel to more than 30 cities around the country doing shows and meet-and-greets.
Up until last month his content was mainly made from his parents’ North
Shore home but he has moved to Hamilton to be with his girlfriend, Kiwi teen Mia Austin, 18, who has 47,400 followers of her own.
Becoming a YouTuber/ influencer was the fifth most popular job for Kiwi kids when 7700 primary and intermediate students were asked to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grow up in the Tertiary Commission’s Drawing the Future report. Sportsperson was well ahead, followed by a vet, police officer and teacher/lecturer.
“The leaps social media has taken since Gen Z has been around I believe have given each generation different experiences and outlooks on things,” Clarke says.
“But I think the biggest difference of them all is how Gen Z sees the future more optimistically than Millennials did at a younger age. With the power of growing up on the internet, we as Gen Z see so many more opportunities for work, making money, and the possibility of traditional work spaces changing. I’m a strong believer that less of Gen Z will go to college than Millennials, because of the vast open doors the world now has in store via technology.”
But Clarke concedes Gen Z’s attention span is “awful”, caused by apps like TikTok and Snapchat “which force such short pieces of content at you before you move on to something else”.
Millennials are the biggest group in New Zealand. Last year, there were 1.16 million, compared with 1.05 million Gen Zers. There were 1.08 million Boomers and 1.03 Generation X.
In Parliament, Gen X is still the dominant group but Millennials are beginning to gain power.
“Will they change or reverse the decisions made by Baby Boomers and even Gen X?” Spoonley asks, adding that superannuation, a capital gains tax and environmental issues will be important political issues that will unite both generations.
Gen Z should not get too complacent, however. They should perhaps keen one eye over their shoulder for those born in 2013 or afterwards — Gen Alpha.
Spoonley says this next generation’s characteristics are still largely unknown but they will arrive and live in smaller family units and are more likely have just one child.
“They will be digital natives, but natives of a very advanced and quite different digital world. It is interesting to see a 2-year-old using an iPhone or tablet with dexterity and confidence.”
Clarke is aware Gen Alpha could be after him.
“There’s so much to learn about other generations, and I just know one day, Gen Z will unfortunately get our karma and start being hated on and attacked by future generations, just like we do to the Millennials. I declare peace between both generations.”
I thought if I made other people smile, in return I would start smiling more too. Zephan Clarke, TikTok star