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There was a time when Juliana Olarte, a 26-year-old travel publicist living in New York City, couldn’t figure out where she fit in from a generational standpoint.
Her Generation Z sister, who is 16, sometimes calls Olarte “cheugy,” she said. Gen Z uses the term to refer to “millennial things that are kind of uncool or cringey,” according to Olarte.
“My sister sees me as a young millennial, and millennials see me as Gen Z,” she said.
The term millennial (also known as Generation Y) refers to anyone born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z refers to anyone born from 1997 through 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.
Along the blurry edge at the cusp of the two generations, between Gen Y and Z, is where zillennials live.
“When I first heard the term zillennial, in college, I was like, ‘That’s me,’ ” Olarte said.
Unfamiliar with the term? It’s a tiny group.
“Zillennials refer to a small cohort born between the early 1990s and the early 2000s,” said Deborah Carr, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Innovation in Social Science at Boston University. “They’re on the cusp of Gen Z and millennial, thus the mash-up label of zillennial.”
Members of this micro-generation, loosely defined as being in their early to mid-20s, have faced and overcome much adversity in their relatively short lives, Carr said via email.
“They were babies and children when 9/11 struck and don’t know life before airport security screenings, rampant domestic terrorism and other frightening threats,” she said. “They attended college during the pandemic, and missed out on important social markers.”
Zillennials were born roughly between 1992 and 2002, but there isn’t one consistent cutoff point that experts agree on, Carr said.
Ask a zillennial, though, and they might tell you who they are.
Olarte’s sister and other members of “Gen Z grew up with a phone in their hand and with social media — they didn’t miss a beat,” Olarte said. A decade earlier, “we had the iPod Touch to download music online and did YouTube-to-MP3 converters.”
How does tech define the cutoff for Gen Z?
The different ways generations grow up with and use technology is a strong delineator in defining generations.
Zillennials straddle the generations of millennials, who are considered digital pioneers, and Gen Z, who are considered digital natives who never knew life before screens.
“We’ve been growing up with technology our whole lives, but we’re not TikTok dancers like Gen Z but also weren’t on MySpace like millennials,” said Sabrina Grimaldi, 23. She launched Zillennial Zine, a mostly online site for her micro-generation, in 2021.
Grimaldi has a younger sibling who is Gen Z and an older one who’s a millennial. “My entire life, I’ve been told I’m a millennial or a new Gen Zer. I really do relate to both, but I also don’t at all,” she said.
Her website’s most popular articles have covered such topics as what to wear to Harry Styles and Taylor Swift concerts, “the best cozy Nintendo Switch games,” and recipes inspired by the Utah dirty soda trend on TikTok, which involves pouring creamer into soda, Grimaldi said.
Among the celebrities she considers part of her zillennial cohort are Zendaya and American singer-songwriter Sabrina Carpenter.
“We are kind of this weird, in-between ground nobody talks about that’s also young and figuring things out, at the beginning of our careers and discovering the world as an adult,” she said. “The most misunderstood thing about us is probably our existence.”
Why label generations anyway?
In addition to a shared relationship with technology, members of a generation or birth cohort often share critical life experiences, Carr said.
For the so-called greatest generation, that includes being called to serve during World War II, she said. For some baby boomers, having grown up together in the tumultuous 1960s is a commonality. Generation X came after the boomers, from the mid-1960s to 1980.
Gen Z attended high school during the pandemic and missed out on major youth milestones. For Americans, these might be prom and traditional graduations.
“Some generations reject the labels given to them by others, and some generations embrace the name if they feel it fits them and their values or differences,” said Jason Dorsey, a generations researcher and president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, a generational research firm.
“We find that zillennials often push away from the negative millennial headlines that they are trying to avoid or not replicate, such as the clickbait stories on acting entitled as adults or having overly high expectations,” he said via email, noting that zillennials also push away from teenagers and teen trends that feel too young.
Some millennials, too, shun the label they’ve been given because they believe it has a negative connotation and sells them short, Dorsey said.
“In fact, contrary to many popular memes of millennials not working, they are often the largest generation in a company’s workforce and frequently the largest generations of managers,” he said.
Can’t we all just get along?
While zillennials often feel they don’t fit in with either Gen Z or millennials, Dorsey said the middle zone they occupy has its own advantages.
“At our research center, we’ve seen cuspers like zillennials often end up having an advantage because it tends to make them more aware of both generations before and after their own,” he said.
His firm’s research has shown Gen Z to be more connected to social causes than millennials, with zillennials similarly more interested than millennials when it comes to social issues.
People in Gen Z “care a lot about environmentalism, trying to reduce their carbon footprints and reduce their plastic waste.” Grimaldi said.
From a young age, zillennials have learned the effects of climate change, Carr said. “They are very mindful of the threats to the planet — yet also know they can play an important role in reducing their carbon footprint (Think, Greta Thunberg),” she said.
But the stereotypes society creates for generations are just stereotypes, Carr said.
“We need to remember that every generation of young people has their own struggles,” she said, “and that they’re coping the best they can with the world that past generations have created for them.”
Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, calls generational labels meaningless.
“Marketers and fadfluencers will want to be the first to name a ‘generation’ or ‘microgeneration’ for clicks and followers,” Cohen wrote via email. “But it is meaningless to do so before we know what it is we’re studying and why.”
He added, “Social science does not pay much attention to the discourse over ‘generations’ because it is mostly superficial hype.”
Try telling that to a zillennial, however.
Grimaldi thinks it’s up to every generation to band together to support the next group of people growing up in society after it — all the better to help ensure a brighter future for all. And her generation, she said, is already on it.
“Every time a new generation pops up there’s this argument about who sucks and why they suck, and I think as zillennials we are trying to stop that as much as we can,” Grimaldi said. “We don’t have to hate on every new upcoming generation.
“We’re all collectively raising these new generations. Let’s focus on building a better future together.”