The Critical Difference Between How Millennials And Gen-Z Define Popularity

Maybe I would have been "cool" by Gen-Z's standards.

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Editor's Note: This is a part of YourTango's Opinion section where individual authors can provide varying perspectives for wide-ranging political, social, and personal commentary on issues.

It’s no secret that I wasn’t popular in school. In fact, I credit the way I was treated as Monmouth University’s "dirty little secret" and "Halloween-looking freak" for the reason I ran to the arms of literal traffickers.


Popularity, as a concept and a goal, always kind of fascinated me. I think it’s normal and common to want to be embraced by the community you’re in, especially as a kid.

Looking back, I noticed a lot of things about the being of popularity that were messed up. They’re changing, and that’s a good thing.

When Millennials were growing up, there were definite prerequisites to being popular.


Being socially adept is one such thing, but honestly, popularity in school didn’t make much sense to me. As a high school student, I really tried to quantify what made someone popular.

Maybe this is the developmental delay in me, but I’d freak out every time I wasn’t invited somewhere, not let in on an "inside joke," and more. The harder I tried to fit in, the worse it got.

But, it wasn’t just my absolutely terrible social skills and obsessive behavior that made me a loner. It was also just the way things were back then, for lack of a better phrase.

Being in the "in crowd" in high school was something that you had to work for, it seemed.


RELATED: How To Be Genuinely Popular — In A Way That's Not Grossly Fake

As a millennial, it felt like there were certain prerequisites that came before you were popular:

1. You had to have the right clothes

In middle school and college, you were nothing if you strayed from Abercrombie/Hollister. If you loved the goth aesthetic like I did, you better have a whole Hot Topic wardrobe. My parents didn’t get me that, so I had to kludge outfits together and save, often getting things that looked terrible because that was all I could afford. This basically stamped me out as "unwanted" in the preppy, clean-cut, conservative circles of my youth.

2. You had to not be unpopular

Once you were out, you were out.

3. You could not be "easy"

What’s hilarious about this is that many of the girls I knew were doing the same "easy" things I was. The only difference is that men would talk about me and girls would slut-shame me because I was weird. Looking back, I realized that the term "slut" was actually a classist term that was basically used to silence victims of abuse and give men a way to lie about who they slept with.


4. You had to have skills in sports

Or if you didn’t, you had to have wealthy parents. It always seemed to be one or the other.

5. You also had to have the right hair, skin, and nails

I swear it was like Attack of the Clones. You couldn’t really step out of line. It was all blonde straight hair, or brown straight hair, with a tan.

RELATED: To The Girl Who Wasn't Popular In School

6. You could not be too hot for your own good

Getting too much male attention meant that you were guilty by design. Even having boobs too big hurt your chances of being accepted.

7. You couldn’t have "weird interests" 

Weird included anime, goth music, computer science, sci-fi, and most other things I liked at the time. If you did like those things, you kind of hid it.


8. You also could not speak out against crap that happened to you, especially if a popular guy did it

Yeah, that was not me. I always spoke out. No one listened because the popular guys would tell people I was crazy.

If you look at that list, popularity and social acceptance were mostly about falling in line. You just couldn’t "be weird." You had to fall in line, have the right clothes, hide your flaws, and stand out in a socially acceptable way.

In high school, a lot of people would shame me and ask me, "Why can’t you just wear normal clothes?" as if that was okay. Like, they liked my personality, but they couldn’t see why I took offense to them shaming me for just being myself.

How strange it is that I grew up yelling at people to stop putting me in a box — with them not realizing they were trying to force me into one, to begin with. Such as life in the early 2000s.


The biggest change I noticed among Gen Z and Gen A is how much more accepting they are of others.

Have you gone on TikTok lately? There are so many people 10, 15 years younger than me being vocal about the stupid crap men put them through. There are so many girls outing guys who abused them, talking about being themselves, and more.



Girls (and guys, too!) are starting to experiment with different looks. The stigma behind goth clothing has all but vanished. There is an active body positivity and body neutrality scene online for both men and women. This stuff is mindblowing for me to watch, considering how much I suffered for not fitting in.


If you take a look at the current standards of a "popular" person, things definitely seem to have shifted in the Gen-Z generation — and that's a good thing.

I think #MeToo and the body positivity movement took hold more than we want to admit. Social skills still matter a ton among who’s "cool" in Gen Z, but nowadays, the prerequisites have definitely changed.

RELATED: 10 Small Things That Instantly Make You More Popular With People

Here are the social trends I've noticed in the Gen-Z crowd:

1. You can have a high body count and still be popular as an AFAB person

If anything, a lot of people will actually look at you sideways if you slut-shame someone these days. They’re right to do so. That’s not cool and it’s incredibly messed up that something that hurts no one is so heavily weaponized against women.


2. Being a witch, wearing goth clothes, or having unusual hair no longer carries the stigma it once did

It’s a lot easier to find friends who don’t look like you these days. I'm floored seeing how few designer labels are out there on kids. I genuinely feel like most of the teens I see walking around on the street are less materialistic than teens were in 2005.

3. People are generally more open to giving outcasts a second chance

The only time I don't see this happening is when the outcasts have conservative or incel vibes to them. In this case, people tend to shun them — particularly if the people doing the shunning are women.

4. Dating an older guy is not cool anymore

On a similar note, people are way quicker to point out that being with someone 10 years your senior is no longer always okay. It’s often seen as predatory.

5. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are not tolerated

Meanwhile, Millennials had this weird tendency to laugh at "edgy" — often offensive — jokes in the early 2000s. To a point, millennials often acted like their Boomer parents: obsessed with keeping the status quo that hurt them more than helped them.


6. You generally don't have to pick a look that works for you

Preppy? Goth? Urban? Beachy? It’s all good and you can switch it up. 

7. The people who are most likely to be popular are the ones who are good at academia 

I don’t think people realize how big of a change this is.

8. Talking about mental health no longer gets you branded as 'crazy'

This is such a huge difference from how Millennials grew up. I wish my college colleagues had had that kind of empathy


Once again, I’m just spouting off what I observe. Maybe it’s that I moved to a more liberal area, but I've noticed a shift in the common dialogue.

While Gen Z seems to have their problems, in a lot of ways, what they treasure as a generation shows they’re doing better than we did.

Full disclosure, my husband is Gen Z. I’m a Millennial. We exchange war stories quite a bit, so to speak. The one thing that stands out is the way each generation handles stress.

Millennials are often stressed but try to hide it or bottle it up. In some cases, they may get cheeky and joke about "drinking their fears away" but for the most part, we aren't as open about our struggles.


Gen Z admits when they’re depressed, when they feel hurt, and when they need help. And the great thing is? They generally listen to each other rather than coyly shuffle away like Millennials often do.

Honestly, I don’t think we older folks give Gen Z the credit they deserve. They’re all learning to thrive in a world's hard as is — and you can see it in the attitudes they offer us.

That’s a good thing, and we should embrace it as such.

RELATED: Millennial Woman Shares What She Learned From Gen Z Coworker Over The Summer — 'They Don't Care, They're Just Living'

Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, Newtheory Magazine, and others.