Why Do So Many Millennials Look And Seem So Much Younger Than They Are?

Photographed by Danilo Hess at Ray Brown.

I was at the supermarket, picking up some little pre-mixed martinis to enjoy in the sun, when I sensed the store manager hovering behind me. “Got any ID for that?” he asked, sighing protractedly. I didn’t. “But I’m 30 years old,” I said, motioning towards my face. “See? 30.” He laughed as if I were an over-confident sixth former trying my luck. “Yeah, I don’t think so,” he said, scooping up the cans. “Sorry, no can do.” Right then I felt like kicking over a nearby cereal display, spilling Shreddies everywhere. Think I’m a teenager? Watch me act like one then. But I’m 30, so… my impulse control kicked in.

People love to say “consider it a compliment!” when you get mistaken for someone a lot younger, but I don’t at this point. I graduated from uni nearly 10 years ago. I’ve worked as a journalist and editor for almost as long, been in multiple relationships and navigated intense life experiences. I own a Hetty hoover. I’ve published a book. I remember AOL! When someone says I look younger than I am, what I really hear is: None of that counts. I still don’t take you seriously. Not that people in their twenties don’t get taken seriously, but I’m a different person to who I was at 24, 25, even 26. I want that to show, externally.

I don’t think I actually look physically younger than 30. But—like other millennials—I possibly give off a younger “energy.” My arms are covered in stick ’n’ pokes from my twenties. I look at ease in a cosy hoodie and low-slung jeans. Plus I barely scrape 5’2.” The way I speak and hold myself hasn’t changed much in the past few years. And I’m not alone in this: my friends, who are broadly the same age as me, could easily be five years younger. My fiancé is a full-time musician with bleached blonde hair and a penchant for motocross jackets. As a kid, I didn’t picture 30 looking like this. My high school teachers were 30. We definitely look different to them. We act differently to them, too.

Much has already been said about millennials’ inability to “grow up”. We’re lambasted for not owning homes or having kids soon enough (who can do either of those things unless you have a hefty two-income household and/or an inheritance?). We’re renting house shares like overgrown students for a lot longer (plenty of my single friends can’t afford to live alone). And things like marriage, or toiling away in the same career, appear to have lost their shine for many. Even so, that doesn’t explain why we don’t always look like the 30-somethings of yesteryear—or why I can’t get served a pink martini in my local supermarket.

I’m not the only person to be mulling this over. TikTok is overrun with videos about why millennials don’t seem to be aging “normally” (“why don’t millennials age?” currently has around 19.4 million views on TikTok). Some have hypothesized that it’s because “tweakments” like filler and botox are cheaper and more widely available now. Others have joked that it’s because millennials “have depression, so we’re indoors all day, and we don’t let the sunlight age our skin.” Still others have wondered whether it’s due to camera phones, and the fact that we see ourselves more often than ever before, meaning we pay more attention to our looks and outfits. Or maybe we are aging normally, we just don’t think we are, so we don’t act like it.

There are likely countless reasons for this time-body-mind warp. One of my personal theories is that our image of a “real adult” is simply outdated, and fails to take more recent style and culture shifts into account. Your parents and grandparents didn’t post photo dumps, wear athleisure in the workplace or DM their colleagues “lmao” in their thirties. But frames of reference evolve constantly, and that’s what 30-somethings are like now. You don’t just suddenly get a cropped haircut and start saying the word “trendy” as you age. We’re stuck with an image of a 30-something that is no longer relevant. I’m sure Gen X—the Britpop kids, the ravers—didn’t always resemble dads. It must have taken a moment to catch up.

Before I continue, I must add: I’m well aware that age is mostly meaningless, and that attaching labels to a person based on an arbitrary yearly marker is a disservice to their individualism. I know that most people don’t actually “feel” their age, because they just feel like themselves (same here). And I am so much more interested in a person’s mind than how old they are. But that doesn’t mean I am not intrigued and curious about how I appear to others now that I’m in my thirties. I find myself fearful of becoming a Benjamin Button-like character—like when you Google a child actor and they look the same as an adult, just weird and with facial hair. Are millennials like child actors? Stuck, and frozen in time, forever?

One of the most frightening things about existing is that the world keeps spinning and time keeps hurtling onwards. Stop, you feel like protesting, I’m not ready yet, I’m not ready. But the universe does not hear you, and it doesn’t care anyway. That’s the great tragedy and gift of living. We all move forward. And one day soon, Gen Z will wake up and they will be middle-aged, and Gen Alpha will have children of their own, and their grandparents will not be wearing slacks and cardigans and taping pound coins to Christmas cards. They’ll be wearing Juicy Couture and Post Malone Crocs and sending skull emoji reacts to their grandkids’ messages.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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