There’s a classic scene from “The Simpsons” where Homer flashes back to his youth as a rock-and-roll-loving teenager, and his dad, Abe, struggles to understand the music. He tells Homer: “I used to be ‘with it,’ but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m ‘with’ isn’t ‘it,’ and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary to me.”
Abe then lowers his voice and delivers the dagger: “It’ll happen to you.”
Homer pays no attention. Then, of course, it does happen. Decades pass and he becomes bald and overweight, his tastes in bands and fashion and everything else relegated to the oldies bin that is the eventual resting place of anyone who ever dares to consider themselves “with it.”
That episode, “Homerpalooza,” aired 25 years ago, many years before Generation X ceded its cultural relevance to the millennials. If that’s not enough to make you feel old, try learning that being born in the early 1980s now makes you the same age as Homer (39, although the show’s timeline is inconsistent), which was a fun Google experience I had earlier this week.
But it also technically qualifies me as an Old Millennial, depending on where one draws that line. So as a millennial elder, it has been immensely entertaining watching younger members of my generation freak out over the ascendance of Gen Z, which is what we’re calling people born between the late ‘90s and early 2010s, now in their teens and early 20s.
A few months ago, it became public knowledge that Gen Z was mocking millennials’ skinny jeans and unhealthy Harry Potter obsessions, and had invented a word, “cheugy,” to describe anyone clinging to outdated 2010s trends. More recently, millennials have been roasting themselves for enjoying “Sour,” the new album by 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo. The typical gesture is to post a meme with the text “Millennials listening to Olivia Rodrigo” and an image of someone really old, such as latter-day Rose from “Titanic.”
Rodrigo’s first hit was a catchy power ballad called “Drivers License,” which is about a heartbroken teenager driving past her ex’s house and having Feelings. But for a song that has inspired so much millennial angst, almost nothing about it is generationally specific. Teens, cars, and heartache have been the meat of popular music since the 1950s.
What’s different is that the biggest thing in pop culture is no longer by us or for us. Neither are the marketing strategies, the online discourse or the presumption of influence. I come from the future with bad news: This train only goes in one direction.
Elder millennials have already turned 40, and it’s ... a whole mood. We’ve experienced the big reveal of adult life, which is that not having your s@!$ together is the default setting. We’ve also learned that credit scores matter and that staying home to watch murder shows is better than partying. And if we’re lucky, we’ve collected enough reasons to believe the second half of life might actually be happier than the first.
Either way, middle and older adulthood is where most of the world’s political and economic power is concentrated. Writing a couple of weeks ago in the Washington Post, Christine Emba suggested millennials stop worrying about our waning hipness and start exercising that power to leave behind a better world than the one we’re inheriting from the Baby Boomers and Gen X.
“As we come into the dominance of middle age, we can ensure that we don’t saddle the next generation with our problems — by pushing for real action on climate change rather than sweeping it under the rug; by addressing racism head-on rather than pretending it doesn’t exist,” Emba wrote. “As we become the bosses, we can try not to repeat our elders’ mistakes.”
This would be an extraordinary act of kindness toward a generation that mocks millennials’ fashion choices. But it’s also strategically sound, since they will be caring for us in old age, long after they themselves stopped being “with” whatever “it” is.
That’s right, Gen Z: (lowers voice) It’ll happen to you.