Why Does Gen Z Believe It’s ‘Ageing Like Milk’?

By Callie Holtermann
New York Times
Anxiety around ageing may be universal, but recently some members of Generation Z have been voicing acute distress. Photo / Getty Images

Some Generation Z say they fear their generation is ageing more quickly than others. But as Gen Z-ers enter their late 20s, it’s more likely that they are simply getting older.

It is a disorienting moment for anyone who happens to be getting older. Look left, and teenagers are shopping

Anxiety around ageing may be universal, but recently some members of Generation Z have been voicing acute distress. A few widely circulated social media posts have advanced the tantalizing theory that Gen Z is “ageing like milk,” which is to say, not well.

In one TikTok video that has been seen nearly 20 million times, Jordan Howlett, a 26-year-old with a dense beard and professorial glasses, says that he thinks he and other members of Gen Z look more mature because of the stressors heaped on the generation. In another, a wrinkle-free young woman named Taylor Donoghue feigns outrage at commenters who thought she might be in her early 30s. “Bye digging my own grave,” Donoghue, who is 23, wrote in her video’s caption.

The oldest members of Gen Z are around 27. It may be that, like every human before them, they are simply getting older. The trend is all but certain to persist.

Gen Z’s newfound preoccupation with ageing has been greeted with a kind of schadenfreude in Millennial pockets of social media. Commenters sneer: Do Gen Z-ers really believe they discovered age anxiety, the way they discovered low-rise jeans? Those seeking to cast blame have tried to pin Gen Z’s supposedly accelerated maturation on vaping, makeup, cancel culture or karma. Some have suggested the anti-ageing products and procedures used by Gen Z-ers have, ironically, made them look older.

Other young people and experts say it’s no surprise that a generation raised on social media, and that came of age in the era of fillers and Facetune, might be particularly attuned to the natural physical changes that occur with age.

Donoghue, a content creator who lives in New York City, said in an interview that social media had made it easy for her to compare herself not only with others but with younger versions of herself, too, who are all lined up chronologically on her Instagram feed. Sometimes she scrolls back five years and thinks, “Oh my gosh, I was such a baby,” she said.

When her “digging my own grave” video first took off, she thought it was funny. But she began to prickle as commenters dissected whether it was her hair, her lipstick or her skin that they believed made her look older. “At one point I was like, you know what, maybe I should bump up the Retin-A,” she said, referring to a skin product for acne and fine lines. Some of her friends in their early 20s get Botox, she said, and in a few years she expects to join them.


Bye digging my own grave never ask social media ur age lol

♬ original sound - Taylordonoghuee

A series of ageing-related TikTok trends in recent months are further warping the fun house mirror. There are slide shows in which celebrities are gradually de-aged, like one that begins with Morgan Freeman at 85 and ends with him at 17. There are AI face filters that spit out equally believable versions of users as a grandparent or as a teenager.

“There is a sense in which young people have forgotten what faces look like,” said Renee Engeln, 47, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and the director of the Body and Media Lab there.

Can we blame them? Gen Z grew up endlessly scrolling through idealised versions of their own faces and the faces of others, Engeln said. They have encountered more imagery of people with anti-ageing cosmetic procedures and fewer examples of faces that have naturally aged, she added.

Social media connects young people with both the pressure and the tools to modulate their ages the moment they log on, said Devorah Heitner, 48, an expert on children’s relationships with technology and the author of Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World. Online, 10-year-olds may pose as 13 to gain access to social media and because they want to participate in adult life, she said.

For young women in particular, the impulse to age up online is soon eclipsed by the societal pressure to appear younger. “You’re basically supposed to be 25 from the time you’re 13 to 40,” Heitner said.

Those pressures have been neatly packaged by the beauty and cosmetics industries, which are eyeing ever-younger customers — and shifting expectations of what a person looks like at 30, 40, 50 and beyond in the process.

Some dermatologists promote “baby Botox” or “prejuvenation” procedures, which have ballooned in popularity among customers in their 20s and 30s. Skin care companies are targeting even younger demographics: According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, Bubble Skincare, a company that sells hydrating moisturizers and eye-brightening cream, works with about 2000 13- and 14-year-old youth ambassadors.

Though Gen Z may be uniquely ambushed with this marketing and messaging on social media, dealing with ageing and ageism — even in one’s 20s — is nothing new, said Sari Botton, 58, editor of Oldster Magazine, a digital publication about ageing. She wondered whether Gen Z’s moment of sensitivity around ageing might have less to do with their appearances and more to do with their anxiety about the next phase of adulthood.

“I think it’s probably the old quarter-life crisis, and the realisation that they’re going to have to make some big adult choices that they’re going to have to live with,” Botton said.

As they age, Gen Z-ers will also have to let go of youth as a central part of their identity, said Howlett, whose video about looking older than 26 elicited more than 60,000 comments. He thinks that Gen Z’s fear of ageing is accompanied by insecurity about what comes next. “Gen Z is so worried about turning 30, that time when you’re supposed to have everything put together,” he said.

These insecurities are age-old, but increasingly they’re being processed in front of millions of viewers.

“Your ageing anxiety used to take place in the privacy of your own home or maybe with a very close friend or family member,” Engeln said. “Now it happens on TikTok, with an audience.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Callie Holtermann


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