Are you “cheugy”? How a Gen-Z vs. millennials war has been manufactured

Gen-Z’s latest insult for uncool millennials is a distraction from the structural divides between generations.

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On Wednesday night, my boyfriend was scrolling through his phone when he suddenly turned to me across the sofa, with a concerned look on his face. He needed to ask me a serious question about something he’d seen online. As I'm someone who writes about internet culture, and as a generational cusper, he asked me, in all sincerity: “Am I ‘cheugy’?”

To the uninitiated, "cheugy" is a new Gen-Z creation – a term to describe people (typically millennials) who are a little lame. They wear just out-of-style fashion trends; they like Starbucks, fedoras, and anything where a brand’s label is on display. They are, essentially, a bit basic. “Cheugy (pronounced chew-gee) can be used, broadly, to describe someone who is out of date or trying too hard,” wrote Taylor Lorenz in the New York Times, who first gave attention to the term at the end of April. “While a lot of cheugy things are associated with millennial women, the term can be applied to anyone of any gender and any age.”

Until last week, and certainly before Lorenz’s article, few people would have heard of cheugy. Even on TikTok, where the term was coined by 23-year-old Gaby Rasson, it hadn’t really taken mainstream hold. But that was before the Telegraph tweeted “cheugy” 16 times in the space just five days, between 11 May and 15 May, and had a holding spot in the Twitter trending column for a thread it had done explaining the “Gen-Z insult to older generations”. 

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The popularity of “cheugy” is the latest chapter in the “war” between Gen-Z and millennials, an intergenerational conflict that can be best defined by trendy articles in digital publications and broadsheet newspapers alike. The are battlelines are drawn by pieces like “Are You Confused by the Current Generational War? Congrats, You May Be a Zennial!” and “The culture war between Gen Z and millennials is on. The first battle? Side partings”. They are hinged on culture signposts, as the Independent wrote in March: “In summer 2020, Gen Z took to TikTok to mock millennials’ apparent obsession with Harry Potter, coffee, using the word ‘doggo’ and describing ‘adulthood’ as ‘adulting.’” It’s seen as the natural next step following “OK, Boomer”: the Gen-Z/millennial backlash against the baby boomer generation. 

But does this so-called “war” really exist beyond younger people finding older people embarrassing, as they always have? It’s hard to see any true divides beyond memes on Instagram and TikTok, which are then regurgitated to older audiences via more traditional media. Similar to my boyfriend, I doubt many of us would have ever come across the term cheugy had the Telegraph not spent so much energy on making it known. I also doubt cheugy would have ever reached major mainstream salience; one of the most popular TikToks on the subject only has just over half a million views (not particularly high for the platform). 

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Of course, the cultural differences noted in these articles and memes are not entirely fabricated: 17-year-olds will look at people in their late thirties and see a generation brought up in a way that is completely alien to their own. The oldest millennials will be turning 41 this year, meaning many Gen-Z teenagers will have millennial parents. It is unsurprising they have radically different interests. But is this not the way each new generation always views the last, exaggerated by viral videos and clickbait journalism?

Not all elements of the wider “generational wars” are as manufactured as the supposed rift between Gen-Z and millennials. Some go far beyond cultural divides and into real social and economic disparity. As cohorts both millennials and Gen Z are financially far worse off than their boomer counterparts on a number of metrics, yet the stereotype that young people waste money on flat whites and avocados persists, resonating with older age groups. Even in the pandemic where they have suffered disproportionately in terms of missed education, lost jobs and limited space during lockdown, young people have been the target of scorn from politicians and the wider public for allegedly causing coronavirus to spread (despite there being more evidence of rule-breaking from older generations).

What the coverage of the Gen-Z/millennial “battlelines” achieves is to distract us from the very real generational inequality that exists between both of them and baby boomers. It takes what is ultimately an easy joke (aren’t older people so untrendy) and turns it into something clickable for media outlets. It reduces crucial debates about young people’s economic precarity to little more than relatable viral content, equating structural intergenerational inequality with teens thinking it’s lame that millennials still wear skinny jeans. 

So, are you cheugy? You may be if you like slogan tees, girlbosses, or tassel earrings. But there’s an easier way to determine that you fall into this category: if you’re a little bit uncool. The cost of cheugy discourse is not just chalking it up as another case of the media creating major trends that are, in reality, niche, but dragging serious generational problems down with it; losing their weight by turning them into just another clickable article's punchline. 

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Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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