the internet

The Beginning of the End of Millennial Discourse

Photo: Digital Art/Getty Images

Doggo. Pupper. I did a thing. So that just happened. Adulting! But first, coffee. THIS! Pizza and taco emoji in a Tinder profile. Skinny jeans. Side parts. Harry Potter houses. Earnest girlbossing. SuperWhoLock. BuzzFeed accents and Tumblr brain — these are the kind of styles, vocabulary, and behaviors that allegedly make millennials egregiously identifiable on the internet.

To blend in, the especially online among us seem to believe, we should abandon these cheugy millennial ways and embrace Gen-Z culture. Use words like cap or start sentences with “Not you” to call out the unbelievable. Organize the visual world into “cores” you can search for on Depop, and part your hair in the middle when you share a zoomed-out outfit selfie on BeReal.

For the past five years, millennials have been in a panic over the rise of Gen Z. The particularly anxious even write diss tracks. This panic has been variously parodied by Gen Z — often literal children — becoming a genre of TikTok video and earnest discourse all its own. Some millennial trends, once markers of youth and trendiness, are no longer cool. Instead of aging gracefully and accepting the loss of access to the very cool that once made them the center of attention, some millennials resort to Gen-Z cosplay. All it takes is a buzzy think piece about the differences between the generations to send millennials into yet another existential tizzy.

In an essay this month for The Atlantic, Kate Lindsay (a former colleague of mine) revived the discourse by elaborating on her July 26 newsletter about “the millennial pause.” That refers to the hesitant pause at the start of a video when the speaker confirms they’re recording, according to the term’s originator, @nisipisa. The Atlantic’s headline asks, “Are You Sure You’re Not Guilty of the ‘Millennial Pause’?” (The upshot, again, is that exhibiting millennial behavior is embarrassing.) The piece goes on to describe an internet history in which millennials were the first to plant a flag in the fertile grounds of social media. It claims that the social internet as we know it was created by millennials. And now it’s all fading away. Millennials are becoming “the first cohort to watch their youth fade in real time, with evidence of their growing irrelevance meticulously documented in memes, trends, and headlines published on the very internet they once reigned over.”

In this story, millennials are the Adam and Eve of the internet, Tumblr was their Garden of Eden, and the evil serpent is an emerging cohort so mockingly cool and threateningly young it’s named after the last letter of the alphabet: Gen Z.

Millennials, however, aren’t aging out of the internet — they are aging out of youth. Whatever shift is being felt is a loss of access to the social capital of youth. And unlike generations before them, this is happening in the shared space of the internet, where they feel mocked by a cacophony of teenagers who follow people like Chase Hudson and still use Snapchat.

But to borrow from the millennial internet playbook, I’d like us to aggressively zoom in on our subject: When we say “millennials,” who exactly are we talking about? As many creators have chimed in on this round of discourse (and the many rounds before it), the millennial quirks being branded as corny and uncool represent a very narrow slice of the very online youth of the 2010s. “Every time we hear the Gen-Zers talk about the phrases that millennials use that are out of touch, they’re saying things like ‘doggo’ or ‘We did a thing’ or ‘That just happened’ or ‘adulting,’” TikTok user @appliedscience11 said in a video. “But who is saying those phrases? … Me and mine weren’t saying that.”

When you consider that what’s being displaced as the paragon of cool is just a suburban white minority’s youth culture — DoggoLingo, “basic girl” culture, “internet awesomesauce” — you get a better sense of why we keep having this conversation.

The internet has long been subject to the language of domination — users and platforms compete to conquer and reign over it. A lot of millennial pride is born out of this mythical pioneering of the social internet by being “the first generation to grow up with social media in the mobile web era,” as Lindsay writes. And like every such retelling of history, it’s a revisionist fantasy that flattens reality into singular heroes and linear narratives, once again erasing the role of Black queer culture and other marginalized people. The “periodt” and ironic “slays” that make Gen-Z culture so impenetrably cool to the “doggo” cohort of millennials is a virtually unchanged iteration of two other concurrent millennial internets: the Black millennial internet and the one that was slowly siphoning coolness points from it.

As Rob Dozier put it for Paper in 2020, today’s white kids grew up on the Black internet of the 2010s: While one part of the millennial internet wallowed in a snobby hipsterdom that quite literally looked to 1890s Americana for its Manifest Destiny chic, another leaned into the Tumblr-ization of Swag/Jerk culture and a Kar-Jenner-led wave of digital blackface(lest we forget Miley Cyrus’s twerk-queen era). This too was millennial culture — a confused repackaging of white protagonism.

Gen Z isn’t supplanting millennials with its own unique brand of youth culture; it’s carrying the torch from one generation of suburban white teenagers to another.

The hallmarks of Gen Z’s internet culture is a wider adoption of Black and queer culture from the 2010s and beyond. Consider when, a few months after Dozier’s Paper article came out, Gen Z’s first internet star, Kombucha Girl (a.k.a. Brittany Broski), kicked up some discourse by mistakenly claiming that AAVE was internet speak. Just as a certain kind of millennial gets to claim they “defined the online ecosystem,” it will one day be a certain kind of Zoomer. The Charlie D’Amelios and Billie Eilishes of the world.

When faced with the anxiety that our youth culture is aging out of style and falling off the edge of cool, we should ask, What does it take to engineer this breakneck progression of trends and culture to create the illusion that we’re in never-ending conquest of the internet? Of culture? By zooming out, we’re able to see how this is not a story of linear progress, of mean-girl Zoomers making fun of skinny-jeans millennials, of the inevitable progression of one generation of cool to the next. Instead, it’s the cycle of whitewashing. This swirl of doggo millennialism, Gen-Z culture, and the Black internet tell a different story. It’s not millennials versus Gen Z — it’s infighting. And it’s enough already.

The Beginning of the End of Millennial Discourse