Photo: Christian Filardo
Picture this: You’re on a date with someone a few years younger than you, and everything’s going well. The drinks are flowing, the vibes are kicking, and then you somehow get onto the subject of DJing. You bring up someone you know who’s a DJ, and how he never goes anywhere without his USB. “Why?” asks the date. “Because that’s where he stores the MP3s.” There’s a pause, a flash of confusion across your date’s face: “What’s… an MP3?”
You try to explain, but your words sound strange and old-fashioned in the dim of the bar. Why would anyone need digital archives of a song? Your date is probably thinking. What about streaming? You are in your late 20s, but have never felt more ancient in your life.The aforementioned is a real date anecdote, shared to me by a now 28-year-old millennial, who used to date a zoomer. While we often hear about age gap relationships – usually in relation to people arguing on TikTok about whether dating an adult three years younger than you is predatory – we hear much less about the cultural divide.But look, it’s there: Zoomers think 2013 style is “vintage”, they don’t remember a time before iPhones and they also believe they invented baggy low rise jeans. Millennials, on the other hand, post way too much on the grid, are always in those sand-coloured slip-on Birkenstocks and still quote lines from a film that came out 20 years ago (“Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimised by a millennial quoting Mean Girls”). For some, these differences are no big deal. For others, they can be deal breakers. When 30-year-old casting director Roxy (who, like others in this piece, chose not to share her surname for privacy reasons) started hooking up with a 21-year-old guy, she didn’t pay attention to the age difference at first. But then she met his mates.
“One girl asked me how many kids I had… not even ‘Do I have any?’ just, ‘how many?’” she remembers. Afterwards, that same friend told her: “I want to be a hot MILF like you when I’m older.” Eventually, the age gap became impossible to ignore. “For a woman dating younger it’s so hard because you’re working against your body clock,” says Roxy, now 32. “So being in different places in your journey is always a make or break.” For 33-year-old Naomi, a musician, not having TikTok on her phone meant that much of what her two ex-boyfriends, both in their mid-20s, referenced just flew straight over her head. “The biggest difference was what media we consumed. TikTok was their main source of info, so often I had to Google certain expressions that were currently trending,” she says. That included dances that everyone – as in, everyone under the age of 25 – knew the choreography to and terms like “tomato girl summer”.Still, it wasn’t all bad. Naomi says that her exes were pretty plugged in, which was a plus. “I do think ultimately they were more socially conscious and informed than I was at their age, which made me feel as if we were almost the same age.”It may sometimes seem ludicrous to flatten millennials and Gen Z into two separate caricatures, especially considering that, A) every person on this earth is entirely different from the next and, B) Someone born in the late 90s isn’t going to be vastly different from someone born in the early-mid 90s. But it’s also worth considering how quickly culture tends to shift, particularly with regards to technology, slang and fashion trends. I remember a time when people wore £5 plimsolls and skull-covered shemaghs to the rave and used words like “peng” and “ROFL”. If I shared this with someone even five years younger than me today, I’d feel like a corpse on her way to picking out a coffin.
Speaking to zoomers about dating millennials is also illuminating. Twenty-four-year-old structural engineer Emily tells me that her boyfriend, Joe, 33, didn’t have a smartphone in high school, so there’s hardly any photos of him from that time period. She has very little visual references of what he looked like, or what he was into back then, “whereas I can scroll back on my Instagram [to that era]… maybe he was lucky in that regard”. Emily’s example may not resonate with everybody (younger millennials were unfortunate enough to come of age in the era of uploading 1,000 deranged digital camera pics to a Facebook album called something like “last day of schooooool :P”). But I get where she’s coming from. The idea that somebody might be able to find a photo of me online from when I was 15 or 16, with a violent side fringe and fake Uggs, feels pretty far away (the Facebook albums from that time are long gone). But for zoomers, those pics are often right there, a few scrolls away. “[Joe] had a Facebook in college, and it reminds me of Superbad,” Emily adds. Nobody I spoke to – millennial or zoomer – expressed monumental differences when it came to dating the other. It was the little things, the low-key cultural references you might not immediately consider when meeting someone. One girl told me that her ex had never heard of LimeWire, for example, whereas someone else told me that it made her feel really old describing how her family used to phone up for a takeaway and go to the local Blockbusters on a Friday night.The queer perspective, too, was interesting. One millennial woman told me that she’d noticed that the younger women she’d dated had “a really strong familiarity with [ideas] like ‘relationship anarchy’ and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’”. She described feeling like “an ancient queer in comparison”. Mostly, though, there are more generational similarities than there are differences. Both Gen Z and millennials grew up with the internet in a way that previous generations didn’t. Both of us are broadly glued to our phones. Both generations wear similar-ish clothes, depending on age, style and expendable income, although Gen Z will never know the chokehold that Kate Moss for Topshop once had on the millennial girlies, and most millennials probably wouldn’t wear cat ear hats or anything that reminds them of the MySpace era. The oldest zoomers are now close to turning 27. They’re the same age that some millennials were when zoomers started taking the piss out of them. In other words: They, too, are experiencing the sands of time. They’re no longer broadly “the teens” or even the youngest generation. Generation Alpha are creeping up right behind them. Soon, it will be Gen Alpha laughing about the weird shit their old zoomer boyfriend does (why do they still say “slay”?). And as for millennials? We’ll still be quoting Mean Girls, probably.