It’s a startling scene: Very online millennials, known for being loud, proud and often viciously gatekeeper-y about internet culture, are now invested in what today’s youth has to say on the topic. Ears perked up for the latest trends, all in an effort to be the first to distribute the new do’s and dont’s among their twenty- and even thirty-something friends and earn themselves the gold star of being the friend group’s “Gen Z insider,” millennials are now all about listening to what teenagers are saying about anything and everything. And, they’re getting offended.
After a recent viral TikTok listed all the things millennials do that Gen Z does not approve of — including side parts, skinny jeans, and the laugh-cry emoji — millennials on TikTok responded by taking a stand to defend their fashion choices, hairstyles, and emoji usage. The thing is that while those things are cringey, they shouldn’t really need defending — and it’s the defense of them that’s making everything worse.
Tension between millennials and Gen Z has been growing since the “OK Boomer” days, when everyone over 25 realized that a new generation of people were finding their voice — and using it to make fun of them. Millennials had grown used to being the young dish du jour, self-satisfiedly smiling when Boomers asked them about “The Facebook,” confident that nobody even remembered that Generation X had ever existed. In their time, millennials were powerful — known for killing whole industries by their sheer devotion to Starbucks and avocado toast. They created aesthetics on Instagram and ran circles of discourse on Tumblr. Then Gen Z came along, with TikTok to call their own. Ever since, it’s been this cohort who have been authoring a new culture and pop-cultural language to speak among themselves. And they’re using every emoji in the rainbow, rather than just relying on a few outdated options.
This means that there is now a part of the internet with norms and trends that millennials aren’t immediately aware of — a cruel reminder that tax season and retinol is keeping them too busy to be as online as they used to be. Today’s youth is spending so much time on their keyboards, their fingers are wandering to the lesser-used emojis. They’re challenging themselves and each other to put the keyboard to better use, and express themselves in more precise, though also anarchic ways — and, yes, that involves retiring the ones that got too much love.
Additionally, there haven't been laugh-crying times for a while now. We are in some very deep sobbing-emoji times. It’s no surprise that according to Tinder, the laugh-cry emoji usage has been on the decline this past year, with Gen Z men and millennial men being the main current users.
But maybe it’s not a surprise that some of Gen Z still uses the laugh-cry emoji, after all. Slang and trends can bond a generation, but they do not define it — I guarantee there are Gen Z kids who not only love using the laugh-cry emoji, but also wear skinny jeans and part their hair on the side. And, there are very online millennials to whom it's not news that that emoji is overused.
What’s more surprising is that anyone who is an adult would really care what anyone else thinks about their emoji use, especially when, at its best, emoji use is a jumping-off point for creative projects, not for weird cultural policing. Every major fashion TikToker has executed multiple versions of the #EmojiOutftChallenge, where you create outfits based on different emojis. The hashtag has 113.1 million videos. The reality is that emojis literally offer a wide range of colors and images with which to express any kind of feeling or reaction. Yes, the laugh-cry emoji is now tired. But, Gen Z doesn’t have the power to truly cancel anything, — they just know when to leave things in the past.