When 2021’s so-called 'generation battle' erupted, it’s safe to say I felt like a conflicted bystander. Born in 1996, my identity as 'millennial' or 'Gen Z' is often called into question and after reading every definition on the internet, I still don't know where to place myself. As someone who parts their hair both to the side and in the middle, I'm confused about who I should claim as my contemporaries, and the increasingly cringey dialogue surrounding the generational conflict makes the task that much harder.
You might wonder why finding a generation to belong to matters at all but with the internet constantly hammering in the importance of belonging to certain ‘tribes’, figuring out my collective identity has always felt important. Considering that I can remember watching Disney films rented from Blockbuster, I often find myself identifying with millennials – but the minute they start talking about picking their Myspace 'top eight', I feel completely lost. On the other hand, Gen Z uses technology in the same way that I do but as soon as I start reminiscing about putting song lyrics in my MSN status, they all look completely bewildered.
As it turns out, this no man’s land between the internet's two dominant generations has a name all of its own: zillennials. Growing up during the crossover from analogue to digital, zillennials are a product of a changing world, experiencing old and new in quick succession. Classified as a 'micro-generation' of people born between 1993 and 1998, Urban Dictionary defines zillennials as "too young to relate to the core of millennials but too old to relate to the core of Generation Z. They were 2000's kids and transitioned from teenagers to adults during the 2010's."
The zillennial's defining trait might be a constant state of identity crisis but according to a series of Reddit forums, the determining factor seems to come down to whether or not you remember 9/11. Whereas millennials were old enough to fully understand the events of the day, Gen Z might not even have been born; zillennials, meanwhile, likely have hazy memories of the event, with most of us just starting school at the time. It’s this type of experience that underpins the differences between the two groups and solidifies zillennials as a breed of their own.
Another massive telltale sign of the zillennial experience is the devices they grew up on. While Gen Z are known as ‘tech natives’ due to being born with iPads at their fingertips, millennials fondly reminisce about the days of brick phones – neither of which relates to the experiences of mid to late '90s babies. The zillennial's first phone was likely a flip or slide up before we quickly moved into the Blackberry sphere, with BBM pins being the digital currency of the day. Spending middle school evenings using MSN on a family-controlled desktop computer and high school nights scrolling through Snapchat, the succession of tech and social media was exponential.
Zillennials experienced the same rapid crossover period in popular culture, too, moving from That’s So Raven to Hannah Montana, Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, Mean Girls to Twilight. Zillennials had the good fortune of enjoying the best of what millennials had to offer while laying the groundwork for Gen Z’s social-first stars of today. Before influencers existed, we had the rise of the YouTube ‘vlog squad’, with zillennials practically paying for the bricks that built Zoella’s mansion. Our coming of age was epitomized by Tumblr fandoms and every single pop artist having a group name for their legion of followers (shout out to my fellow Beliebers, you should probably start using eye cream now).
There were the quintessential fashion moments too. Zillennials are too young to have plucked their eyebrows into oblivion, too old to have known how to fill them in properly. While you might have shopped in the last years of La Senza Girl, your mid-teens were dominated by buying clothes at Aeropostale, which you accessorized with foundation lips, clumpy mascara and fringe comb-over. It’s also likely that disco pants and American Apparel hoodies featured on your Christmas list over the years, alongside a tub of Dream Matte Mousse and Barry M 100 lipstick (bonus points if you box-dyed your hair RiRi red).
The ongoing 'you had to be there' memes seem to characterize many of these zillennial experiences, with images showing long-forgotten viral challenges like the Harlem Shake, the Cinnamon Challenge and the early days of ‘planking’. The never-ending strings of tweets also touch on defining cultural moments, like Miley Cyrus being caught with a bong and any instance of a Jonas Brother being seen without a purity ring. There are also important nods to technology, with images of Windows XP backgrounds, the original Sky menu page and portable DVD players (as well as many homages to Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel).
Growing up in this crossover period can be confusing and zillennials often feel the pressure to age up when speaking to millennial colleagues and age down when speaking to younger relatives. "When millennials bring up the dial-up internet tone, I always laugh like I remember it but I definitely do not," says 25-year-old solicitor Naomi. However, she feels equally confused by Gen Z. "I once had a whole conversation with a Zoomer about slime and how people don’t 'use' slime correctly in their videos, which was interesting." Twenty-four-year-old dancer Ruby agrees that the culture gap leaves her baffled: "I can’t join in with conversations about Friends but I equally don’t understand why Gen Z don’t message properly. Why on Earth do they communicate via Snapchat, surely WhatsApp is so much easier?!"
We all know that the concept of separating ourselves into rigid groups is futile but it is gratifying to know that there are other mid-twentysomethings who have the same feelings of alienation as I do. Too old to understand the ‘tired eye’ trend and too young to remember Napster, zillennials are a 50/50 amalgamation of '90s hand-me-downs and the internet revolution, uniquely understanding the perspective of both sides of the coin. As someone with a 36-year-old sister and an 18-year-old niece, I can attest to both of their pop cultural experiences, having spent my childhood watching reruns of Kenan & Kel with one and my teens watching episodes of iCarly with the other.
In a world where millennial childhoods are defined by their Discmans and Gen Z by their iPhones, zillennials are the humble and quickly forgotten MP3 player, an invention conceived in the transitional space between the old world and the new. Existing somewhere between the cohort who founded Facebook and the youth who popularized TikTok, zillennials sit comfortably in the Instagram era, happily observing semi-relatable content from both older and younger creators. From the middle ground, we can enjoy the best of both worlds, disassociating ourselves from avocado obsessions and Tide Pod Challenges alike.
After years of not knowing where to sit, I now view occupying neutral territory as more of a blessing than a curse, allowing me to lurk in the shadows as the intergenerational showdown rages on.