“Ironic might be the most important word in the universe,” declared my friend via text as we discussed the cruel ironies of my past romantic failures. “I’ve built my whole life and personal brand around the concept.”
Of course, his very statement was itself steeped in irony on multiple levels—one of them being the irony of the fact that his own statement was ironic, and then the irony of that irony, and then the irony of that irony of that irony, all building on itself into a veritable Droste effect of self-reflexivity. The worst part of it all was that this irony was a relatable one.
Before that moment, I had never fully examined or realized the extent to which irony pervades my daily life, from my social media presence to my fashion sense to the way I decorate my living space. My bathroom at my parents’ house is adorned with a framed printout of a bizarre tweet by the lead singer of Vampire Weekend (and my ultimate celebrity crush) reading, “u wake with a fresh feeling & think ‘why not put on last night’s clothes and bounce? I am clean in body and spirit’ DON’T DO IT. take the shower” (Twitter, @arzE, 07.16.12).
Not only is the tweet itself ironic in its strangeness, but so is my decision to classily mount and frame an artifact of communiqué that is so prototypically un-classy. My drawers are home to more than a few graphic tees that walk the fine line between ironically unstylish and simply unstylish—a trend embodied by the disturbing rise of “normcore.” And I could wax poetic (and ironic) for hours about the dichotomy between my “rinsta” (real Insta) and my “finsta” (fake Insta), the phenomenon of the latter perhaps epitomizing irony in 2018 through its ubiquitous presence and the fact that everyone has one, but everyone is embarrassed to admit that they have one.
But enough about me, for I am just another cog in the ever-turning wheels of the irony that has—for better or worse—come to define my generation. As a late-1997 baby, I rest uneasily on the cusp that divides millennials from Gen Z, both included and excluded from each group depending on which source I consult. In fact, it is only recently that the term “Gen Z” entered my field of consciousness; before then, I grouped myself, albeit with uncertainty, in the same cohort as my brother—now 29 and undeniably a millennial.
Just recently, he forwarded me a briefing from the investment strategy firm Yardeni Research that codifies the traits inherent to the group now coming of age, graduating college and becoming socially and economically relevant. “Post-Millennials are not mini-Millennials,” the briefing is quick to specify; in fact, we are “more realistic, career-minded, and better prepared” than our much-maligned predecessors, not to mention “instinctively digital, while Millennials are merely tech savvy” (Yardeni Research, “Morning Briefing,” 09.26.2018).
After years of almost-but-not-quite relating to BuzzFeed quizzes with titles like “10 Things Only Millennials Will Understand,” seeing some of my defining traits succinctly (and even ethnographically) described was more than a little validating. Yes, Yardeni Research, I do view my technology as an extension of myself! Yes, this does mean that I’m an excellent multi-tasker! Yes, I am motivated by a quest for financial security! Yes, I AM self-directed and resourceful! Yes, yes, yes!
Unfortunately, what Yardeni failed to capture was the darker and more amorphous aspects that define Gen Z, many of which can be traced back to our twisted and nihilistic outlook on life. This might sound odd in juxtaposition with our apparent upward mobility and go-getter attitude, but after all, none of us have even graduated yet. Our oldest members are still suffering through college, mired in the gratuitous angst, sex, drugs, memes and sleeplessness of school while simultaneously peering out, perplexed, into the impending (and terrifying) realm of adulthood. Case in point: the phenomenon of vaping. As Jia Tolentino explains in a piece for The New Yorker, e-cigarettes—or vapes—were conceived in the early 2000s as a way to reduce harm for nicotine addicts by replacing tar-laden “cancer sticks” with sleeker, arguably less toxic devices, most notably the Juul (The New Yorker, “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul,” 05.14.18).
What Juul failed to anticipate was how well its product would mesh with the ethos of the younger generation. As Tolentino puts it, “Teen Juul iconography radiates a dirtbag silliness. Vapes are meme-ready, funny in a way that cigarettes never were: the black-and-white photograph of James Dean smoking in shirtsleeves has been replaced with paparazzi snaps of Ben Affleck ripping an e-cig in his car” (The New Yorker). Moreover, she points out, a Juul hit is as easy as an Instagram double-tap, fueling the ravenous hunger for instant gratification that is endemic to our generation. So how does ducking into the bathroom during class to suck down tropical-flavored vapor connect to Gen Z’s overwhelming sense of irony—and how is that irony ultimately detrimental? Katie, one of the teens Tolentino interviews, explains it best: “[E]verything we do is like Tide Pods. Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die” (The New Yorker).
Of course, just like eating Tide Pods, we took Juuling too far. Just this week, NBC News reported that the Food and Drug Administration made an unannounced visit to Juul’s headquarters to dig up evidence on the company’s marketing practices. Evidently, despite Juul’s reported efforts, the company just can’t seem to dissuade Gen Z from appropriating its innocent harm-reduction efforts and repackaging them as evidence of our incorrigible edginess (NBC News, “FDA made surprise visit to Juul as CDC finds vape maker dominates market,” 10.02.2018). This comes on the heels of the FDA’s declaration last month that teen vaping has officially reached epidemic levels (NBC News, “E-cigarette use is an ‘epidemic,’ FDA chief says,” 09.12.2018).
All this shows that Gen Z’s culture is multiplying, amplifying and folding in on itself just as quickly as its members are growing up and preparing to enter society. Just look at the explosive evolution of memes, which have morphed from simple images of dogs and babies with corny jokes plastered on top in Impact font to multi-layered litanies of inside jokes so complex that a single tweet or copypasta takes an hour to explain. (See Gimlet Media’s genius “Reply All” podcast, which regularly features hosts Alex and PJ painstakingly explaining Twitter culture to their Internet-clueless boss.)
I could devote another 1,000 words to meme milieu alone, but luckily UC Berkeley has the academic side of that topic covered with their introduction of a meme studies department (Teen Vogue, “UC Berkeley Announces Meme Studies Department,” 10.28.2017). Ultimately, it’s difficult to even conceive of a panacea for Gen Z’s not-soharmless irony, given that we’re just now being recognized as future contributing members of society. Like each preceding generation, it will be up to us to resolve the more unsavory aspects that tie together Z-ers across the nation. Until then, if you need me, just request to follow my finsta.