The Past, Present & Future of Gen Z Yellow

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

There is something to be said about the pantsuit. It’s iconic, symbolic in its marking of the shifts in politics and culture. Most notably, we can turn to female politicians to highlight this phenomenon. Hilary Clinton’s pantsuit; white, stoic, regal. Elizabeth Warren’s; shockingly pink, brash, room-commanding. 

When 22 year old poet, Amanda Gorman emerged on the 2021 inauguration stage, standing on the precipice of a building that months before was scaled by insurrectionists, she was wearing a bright, bright yellow.

An Un-Brief History

Since the beginning of our traceable human history we have seen yellow envelope our lives. It’s the color of fire, the sun, gold. Yellow warms our faces and brings us life. It covers the walls of the pyramids of ancient Egypt and prehistoric cave paintings. In the bible, it’s the color Judas wears. In impressionist flashbacks, Van Gogh colors his paintings in yellow.

So how did yellow, a color that has been worshiped and deified, one found in cave paintings dating back 17,000 years, become associated with one of history’s newest generations?

Rumblings of “Gen Z Yellow” started popping up in the late 2010’s, as the spiritual successor to millennial pink, just as the media was being acquainted with Gen Z—the generation quickly coming of age as Millennials moved onto adulthood and out of the zeitgeist.

The Death of the Girlboss

Many tied the rise of “Gen Z yellow” intrinsically with the death of the “Millennial Pink”. Once seen as boundary pushing, Millennial Pink defined the decade of the “Girlboss”, that has since devolved from feminist mantra, to a Gen Z punchline.

Millennial Pink, a hue somewhere between the light pink and salmon range of the color wheel, is a soft, comforting tone. As Ellen Gutoskey for Mental Floss writes, “…if it looks like something your old Barbie dolls wore, it’s probably too bright to be considered Millennial Pink.” The associations with pink have helped form the color’s relevance amongst Millennials; from its calming effect on people to an homage to the 80’s and Millennials’ childhoods, the widespread use of the color is nothing short of a cultural moment for those born between 1981 and 1996. 

Early adopter of Gen Z Yellow Hayley Nahman, wrote in 2017 for the now defunct Man Repeller (another casualty of the death of the Girlboss) contrasts Gen-Z Yellow as “the natural evolution of Millennial Pink… It maintains that pleasing-to-the-eye softness of the sweetest shades of millennial pink, but without the overplayed infantilization. “It’s both nostalgic and modern. It has zest, energy, optimism. It’s frequently unflattering… ironically speaking, and it pairs well with impractical shoes and weird sunglasses.

If Millennial Pink is Instagram  infographics, Gen Z Yellow is casual Instagram. As Nahman says, Gen Z Yellow is the encapsulation of “trying and caring… but only for your own agenda.”

A Gen Z Yellow for a New Gen Z

It is, however, important to note that the 2017 Gen Z of Nahman’s article is not the Gen Z of today. Today’s Gen Z is living in an era post-Trump presidency, post-Covid and post-Tik Tok. When the early drafts describing Gen Z Yellow were written, the only recognizable Gen Z representatives were Millie Bobby Brown and Greta Thurnberg.

Today Gen Z is mainstream, and so are its role models. From Amanda Gorman to Olivia Rodrigo, the Gen Z aesthetic is still unnameable and ever changing, but yellow remains as its center.

There was once a painter, who refused to use the color green. He believed the color belonged exclusively to nature. Yellow does not occupy this same space. Yellow moves between the natural world and a deeply technological one. It’s the color of dandelions and of the emoji. It’s at once nostalgic and innovative (think Arthur’s sweater and Cher Horowitz’s skirt suit as well as Beyonce’s Lemonade). It’s a color that exists in the in between, everywhere and nowhere. 

Considering how Gen Z was shaped by seminal global moments like our parents’ reckoning with the financial crisis, a student debt crisis of $1 trillion, and eco-anxiety around the ramifications of climate change, we not only have the vocabulary to articulate our emotions, but to express them in the ways that we experience them—complicated and nuanced. Yellow is the default color across the emojis on your keyboard and is simultaneously the color that increases mental activity, awareness, and energy, for everyone, not just Gen Z. This generation’s access to information and awareness of the world around them has allowed them to feel every emotion, more visceral than any generation ever before, expressed in our highs 😊and lows 😕.

Color psychology tells us that it is a color that makes us feel warm and happy, and even brands have picked up on that association. From legacy brands like National Geographic to tech giants like Snap to emerging Gen Z brands like Snack TBH, yellow highlights their brand identity.
TikTok user @tallneil has also called out the emergence of the color “acid”, popping up among Gen Z aligned brands like Our Place and Parade (who calls the color Parakeet). Like Gen Z Yellow, it’s genderless, unnameable, and unflattering. As Gen Z evolves, does the color that defines the generation evolve too?

Hello Yellow, Goodbye Millennial Pink

In 2021, the world was reckoning with a pandemic, resurgence of social justice movements, and a reorientation of what “normal” looks like in a contemporary sense—hint: there is no such thing as “normal.” That year then Pantone revealed “Illuminating” as the color of the year, a distinctively & joyfully Gen Z yellow. While we stay cognizant of the realities of the world around us, we have to cling to hope where we can. Even when it’s symbolic and/or branded, expect that it will propel us all to act. To unequivocally be the generation that holds institutions and stakeholders accountable, sets the trend—whether it’s on TikTok or in politics—to build intergenerational action that’s brighter, bolder, and blaringly honest.

Kate Graham