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Hark, the Millennial Death Wail

There’s a keening sound coming from America’s co-working spaces, third-wave coffee shops, and mommy-and-me yoga classes.

Perhaps you’ve heard it, as if 72.2 million complaints rang out in unison: grumblings of sore joints from high-intensity interval training, of parties held in distant neighborhoods on weeknights; grievances about the resurgence of Y2K style, the onset of hair loss, the strength of contemporary marijuana.

Millennials have grown up. We’ve hit middle age, started to show signs of aging — even of aging out of the internet and into something called “millenopause.” We now have to work harder than ever to stay culturally relevant, as Gen Z and (gasp) Gen Alpha seize the attention of marketing departments and the media.

While it’s true that the generation born in the years from 1981 to 1996 is getting older — as is the way of all life — we are obviously not actually old, except by the stretch of our own fevered imaginations. Millennials are currently between 28 and 43, which means a significant number of us are still too young to run for president. A 36-year-old is smack dab in the middle of the generational cohort, falling well within the psychologist Erik Erikson’s “early adulthood” stage of psychosocial development.

Even if we grant that there are real things making millennials feel creaky — the traditional milestones of adulthood met or not met, the 20th anniversary of “Mean Girls” and the confusing craze for Stanley water bottles — there is something a bit odd about calling so much attention to our own generational obsolescence.

So loud is the chorus of lamentations that there is a sense of protesting a bit too much. Could it be a shtick? Remember, millennials are the first generation who learned to mine their lives for social media content, and “aging” may be a category that is too robust to leave on the shelf.

Once upon a time, if you called attention to your age, it was to tell everyone how great you were doing. Baby boomers, for example, didn’t approach midlife half so neurotically. When boomers started to reach middle age in the 1980s, Cheryl Russell, then the editor of American Demographics magazine, asserted, “The era of the rule of the young is over.” The boomers would still wield cultural power; they would just leave childish things behind.

And for many boomers, aging wasn’t really even aging. “Being 40 today is what 30 used to be, and 50 is the new 40,” Diane von Furstenberg, boomer, told The New York Times in 2005. Meanwhile, for millennials, as the television writer Jen Statsky once posted, “when you are 34 you are actually 27 but the second you turn 35 you are 50.”

According to Anne Helen Petersen, author of “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” millennials were trained on an internet where every detail of their lives became viral chum. Ms. Petersen was my co-worker at Buzzfeed for several years in the 2010s, when articles like, “Signs you were raised in a small town,” were the norm.

“People are going to share things or click on them because it will make them feel seen,” Ms. Petersen said. She pointed out that older millennials have been complaining about being out of touch for some time, but that as more of the generation nears 40, there has been more content about aging.

Gen Z faces similar incentives to make content based on their own lives and has, believe it or not, already started to worry about its own decrepitude. The contrast between two social media native generations is, for the first time, fodder for social media — a fact not lost on anyone who has used TikTok recently. Ever wanted to know how millennials answer the phone, versus Gen Z-ers? How they dance? How they apply makeup?

“TikTok has amplified these generational differences, where every tiny thing feels like it’s under a microscope,” said Casey Lewis, the author of the popular After School newsletter, which analyzes youth consumer trends. “From the emojis we use to the way we say certain words.”

Ironically, nearly two decades ago, millennials were branded as a generation that would change cultural mores and make everyone else feel old: “A new breed of American worker is about to attack everything you hold sacred: from giving orders, to your starched white shirt and tie,” warned a “60 Minutes” segment from 2007.

Having remade so many aspects of American life in their youthful image, millennials are acutely conscious of being defined by their age.

Perhaps all the caterwauling is a defensive strategy — a gambit to claim irrelevance for ourselves before our younger counterparts can tar us with it. One fresh argument, advanced primarily by millennials on TikTok and X, is that Gen Z is aging faster and worse than millennials. In other words, we may be old, but you’ll be here soon, and you’ll handle it even worse.

“I don’t even try to keep myself up, and that’s very freeing,” said Ms. Lewis, who added that she had recently encountered a Gen Z neighbor in the hallway of her building, spurring an epiphany. “I saw her wearing basketball shorts and a big button down with a small cami and cowboy boots,” Ms. Lewis said. “I looked down at myself and thought, ‘I don’t have to engage with that anymore.’ I was wearing jeans and a sweater. It’s freeing, in a good way.”

Of course, millennials’ ability to drive a cycle of discourse around our age means we can still shape the conversation. For millennials who criticized their boomer parents for decades for not shuffling off the stage, the “look how old we are” act may serve another purpose: prolonging our own time in the spotlight, and our own sense that we are the protagonists of history.

A recent TikTok by the comedian Iliza Shlesinger flicked at this tension perfectly. In the video, Ms. Shlesinger, 40, rants at Gen Z with an outraged “message from the millennials,” chiding the youngs for forgetting that “we walked on Instagram so you could run on TikTok.” Naturally, the clip has gone viral on the latter platform, where it has been viewed more than nine million times.

“We were young once too,” Ms. Shlesinger said.

Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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