#166: The upside of aging out
When I heard zoomers had recently experienced their first brush with cultural obsolescence due to something called “skibidi toilet,” I confess to feeling a little smug. For the unaware, which I hope for your sake you are, Skibidi Toilet is a meme that’s apparently popular with Gen Alpha, i.e. kids born between 2010 and 2024. It’s with no pleasure that I tell you it involves a cursed YouTube series featuring a singing army of men with toilets for bodies battling camera-people (?), or that it inspired the term “skibidi toilet syndrome,” which is slang for the brain damage a child may incur by watching too much of it. Blame Insider for educating me. Apparently the meme is causing some Gen-Zers to feel “old and stupid,” which makes me laugh. I keep thinking we’ve reached peak generation-discourse, then get surprised anew. From Z to Alpha: We’re literally starting all over again.
Given that their most seasoned members are only 27 years old, this may be zoomers’ first experience of age-related disillusionment. Until now, they’ve been kept busy imparting this gift upon their elders. But as Skibidi Toilet makes abundantly clear, their moment is nigh. Or at the very least, five years out, when Alphas develop an attitude. Of course, this is just how time works—young people age, become old—but it wouldn’t be 2023 if we didn’t refashion it into some kind of crisis and/or find a way to fight about it online. There’s now a substantial media arm dedicated to harnessing age-related paranoia, breathlessly reporting on trend minutiae: every new “core,” every new “girl,” no matter how fleeting. We as consumers then react with joy, confusion, spite, etc., thus fulfilling our role in the news cycle.
I take the bait from time to time, I’ll admit. Generational discourse has a way of distilling 15-year age brackets into singular personalities that don’t exist but eventually seem coherent through repetition. It’s hard not to get swept up in the drama, even as it’s largely made up of utterly low-stakes trend policing. I rant all the time, for instance, about the fact that “millennial culture” now overlaps almost exactly, perception-wise, with “basic culture,” which millennials themselves maligned long before gen-z was around to do it. But there’s no real point in arguing over these semantics—this is just how things work between the young and the less young. Each group defends themselves as too complicated to be essentialized, then goes ahead and essentializes everyone else. If we could lose the over-eager media apparatus reporting on every micro-trend and squabble, I think it would help a lot.
I’m leading with complaints, and yet there’s a charming element to all this hand-wringing that’s easy to miss. I was reminded of it as I read through gen-z’s “fearful” accounts of becoming irrelevant and detected a hint of something I recognize in my own accounts of the same: delight. Despite everyone’s whining about getting older and therefore aging out of the zeitgeist, I suspect most of us actually kind of like it. First of all, it’s a privilege to age. But more specifically than that, there’s something fun about taking up the mantle of the out-of-step, of getting playfully ribbed by your successors, and most crucially, no longer dealing with the hot heat of being young, lost, and full of potential. There’s an undeniable pressure-release in ceding that position. Of being whisked off center stage to do whatever it is that makes sense to you, however uncool. When that millennial made news last month for wearing her sunglasses too high on her nose (a supposed Gen-Z faux-pas), I could sense it in her, too: a cheerful amusement, even as she complained.
I feel it, too. Last summer, when my friend Justin took me to a party downtown in a cavernous garage, surely operating illegally as a venue, I looked around in amazement. From the middle of the foggy dance floor, I saw everyone there was younger than me, their outfits a baffling mish-mash of trends I hadn’t worn since I was 15. I remember joking to him that I felt washed, but in truth I felt euphoric. It was genuinely surreal to observe these people and recognize, with a new clarity, the distance between us. Their masked eagerness, their considered postures, their energy that suggested this party might lead them anywhere. Technically speaking, they were cooler than me. But I was gratified to realize I didn’t envy them. I didn’t consider them in any way lesser, I just knew it would have been silly to long for something I’d already grown out of.
Unlike the news about Skibidi Toilet, that party didn’t make me feel smug. The zoomers there were full of spirit and fun to watch. They also reminded me of what I’d gained in forfeiting a little of what they had: self-knowledge, a certain calm, some well-earned cynicism about the promise of another drink. This, I think, is the unspoken conceit of cross-generational quibbling, especially online. The elders may often be the butt of the joke, but only because they can emotionally afford to be. This is how the scales rebalance. No matter how feverishly we track it all, forever negotiating what’s in and what’s out, it’s only a matter of time before the young discover the pleasantly round corners of losing their edge, and the cycle starts again.
Last Friday’s 15 things included five articles worth reading, a good (sad) new album I’ve been listening to, some prime New York food recs, and more. Last Tuesday’s newsletter included a spreadsheet I made of your 101 most recommended documentaries, plus a tighter edit of the 28 you recommended several times. Heavy week last week…I hope you’re taking care.
Cover image care of Getty/Hiroshi Higuchi.