Experts explain the generational divide that makes millennials ‘petrified’ of Gen Z: 'We’re all afraid of them'

Walking down the street in my neighborhood, I see them all the time. I have no idea where they come from or what motivates them, but they terrify me like nothing else.

I am, of course, talking about teenage girls.

I’m not alone. It’s recently become a trend on TikTok for millennial users to confess that they’re also terrified of this specific demographic of young folks who are always well-dressed and traveling in packs.

In videos set to a harp cover of “A Moment Apart” by Odesza, users have been sharing voiceovers of the things they know they have to start or stop doing. A popular one is “you have to start romanticizing your life.” Dr. Phil also did one in which he said, “You have to stop commenting daddy on my posts.”

The dreamy harp sounds are often paired with blunt and embarrassing declarations, and the juxtaposition can be both jarring and funny.

“You have to stop being afraid of those groups of teenagers at the mall,” TikTok user notthomas said in one such video. “I know they’re intimidating, but they’re just as scared of you as you are of them.”

“You have to stop being afraid of groups of overdressed middle school girls at Starbucks,” user definitelynotalexxx said in a similar post. “You’re older, you’re wiser and you’re stronger. They may judge your outfit, but they cannot hurt you.”

Both admitted to being a bit hypocritical in their captions, but the confessions resonated with commenters.

“This makes sense to me but unfortunately I am going to continue to be petrified by them I am sorry,” one user wrote.

“I thought it was just me … we’re all afraid of them?” another said.

So why are members of Gen Z so scary to millennials, who aren’t even that much older than them? I spoke to a number of mental health professionals about the generational divide.

Teenagers are fundamentally cool

As Dr. Stephanie Newman wrote in Psychology Today, the reason why so many young people look so fashionable and seem to always travel in swarms is that they face a great deal of pressure to fit in with their friends — a possible sign of insecurity.

“By dressing the same way, speaking the same way, and adopting their friends’ mannerisms, they are actually expressing something complicated about their own developing self-esteem,” she wrote. “They try to get approval and attention in tacit and unspoken ways in order to bolster their fragile self-esteem.”

Based on this information, we know young people are very aware of what is cool, but it’s not typically to intimidate anyone. It’s the opposite. For many teenagers, they don’t want to be cool to stand out. They just want to fit in.

Millennials, on the other hand, just want to stay relevant. Teenagers remind them of their own mortality.

“It’s a little unsettling to suddenly find that you’re no longer the youngest generation on social media,” Katie Sammann, a licensed marriage and family therapy associate, told In The Know. “[Millennials are] less ‘in touch’ with popular culture, new technology, trends and other markers of youth. Their presence reminds us of our age and can make us feel less confident and more vulnerable.”

She said that this realization can be brutal “in a culture that values youth above all else.”

The fix, though, is pretty simple — just remember that most teens are too busy worrying about how others perceive them to spend too much time judging a random thirtysomething’s outfit at Starbucks.

‘Mean girl’ tropes intimidate older generations

The movie “Mean Girls” is a formative one for many millennials, but it’s not just a quotable comedic masterpiece — it serves as the basis for how we perceive younger women. We assume that because they look cool, they must be mean.

“[Millennials] are probably more familiar with the stereotype of teen girls being catty and judgmental than anyone else,” Katie Lear, a licensed mental health counselor, told In The Know. “I think it’s worth noting that this meme is specifically about fear of teen girls, and not teen boys: It’s girls who have to deal with the stereotype of being mean.”

Sammann echoed a similar sentiment to In The Know. She said this fear of “popular kids” is “ingrained” for many of us — and the fact members of Gen Z are notorious for speaking their minds doesn’t help with that fear.

“Gen Z has garnered a reputation for being unafraid to stand up for what they believe in, especially social justice issues and environmental issues,” she said. “This quality is not one [millennials] value, and while I think many of us respect it, we are a bit scared of their willingness to speak their mind.”

Instead of allowing that fear to fester inside you, celebrate their strengths alongside yours. Life is not a popularity contest.

Comparison breeds insecurity

It’s hard to look at a teenager and not compare yourself to them — both the way you both are now, and how you used to look and act when you were that age.

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist, told In The Know that “on a very primitive level, competitive energy has the capacity to breed to breed fear, anxiety and insecurity.” The urge to compare ourselves to others is often unconscious, but feelings of jealousy can arise from that, leaving us feeling undesirable and thus even more vulnerable.

She said this especially happens when we are alone and encounter a “pack” or “group” of people — when you’re at Starbucks by yourself and you encounter a group, you’re going to instinctively feel unsafe.

“On a neurobiological level, a group that is perceived as ‘superior’ is registered as a threat — this can stimulate an actual ‘fight or flight’ response,” she explained. “When a particular group (e.g., teenagers) appears stronger or more acceptable in some way, feelings of insecurity and apprehension can quickly arise.”

Manly recommended that older generations consciously choose to “let go” of negative energy when it rises in these situations, and replace that with positive self-talk instead.

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If you enjoyed this story, you might also like reading about the ways Gen Z pokes fun at millennials.

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