How Gen Z Is Creating an Aesthetic Built on 'Inconvenience'

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  • Text Emily Russo
  • Design Aodan Reddy

It’s an ordinary Tuesday morning. Or so you thought.

You step into the nearest café for an iced coffee because you’re out of milk (typical) and you only bring your phone to pay because carrying cash doesn’t make sense anymore. But what you see on this otherwise ordinary morning is something extraordinary: a long line of twenty-somethings fishing cash out of their pockets, counting singles and dropping coins—physical, actual coins—into the tip jar.

Paying in cash, donning wired earphones and layered in clothes that look like they came from another decade—Gen Z is making a marked aesthetic departure from the excessive convenience we’ve come to expect. This burgeoning trend champions hard-to-find products, labor-intensive thrifting over convenience buying, and tactility over hands-free experiences.

For Gen Z, inconvenience has become part of the look. How is this cohort skirting convenience and, instead, finding opportunities to express themselves through deliberate aesthetic choices? Read on to dive into all of the ways they’re resurrecting outdated tendencies for the sake of the look, including making cash cool again.

@chrisjjosephs Am i crazy here or is cash still not a thing anymore? #fyp #genz #cash ♬ original sound - Chris Josephs

How Convenient Is Too Convenient?

The pandemic taught us many things, chiefly among them: how to expertly employ technology to digitize and streamline things we’d ordinarily do in person. Grocery shopping? Online. Takeout? There’s an app for that (or a hundred). Socializing? Welcome to TikTok, you never have to leave. As we transition to a post-pandemic world, attitudes are changing and people are longing to regain the physical experiences they've lost.

People are craving tactile and immersive experiences as a push back against the excessive screen fatigue they experienced during the pandemic.

- Ciara Larkin, Crowd DNA

Let’s Go Searching

One way we’re seeing Gen Z reclaim those tactile and immersive experiences is through thrifting. According to a 2022 report from ThredUp, 62% of Gen Z and Millennials say they look for an item secondhand before they buy a new version. The secondhand market is estimated to be worth $350 billion by 2027, with Gen Z expected to be the driver. For Gen Z, thrifting is a lifestyle.

‘Thrifting has been normalized,’ 21-year-old Depop store owner Eve Perez told NPR. ‘Since so many people are doing it, it's now seen as cooler. It's seen as better than going to the mall. Younger people find it fun, like a game. A hunt for something unique.’

- Eve Perez, Depop Store Owner via NPR

Young people are swapping shopping for searching, eschewing convenience for a more labor-intensive process to ensure the items they buy are a true reflection of individual identities. The blast-from-the-past trend has taken shape across the retail world. Patagonia, which embodies sustainability throughout its business model, also introduced entire in-store sections dedicated to previously worn items to further emphasize its commitment to the environment. And Urban Outfitters was ahead of the curve when it introduced its Urban Renewal program, a line for recycled and reworked pieces back in 2021. Other brands are taking notice and following suit.

From Where? To Infinity

The entirety of fashion content posted to platforms like TikTok and Instagram has become Gen Z’s thrift store, with comment sections serving as open arenas to crowdsource thrift-savvy influencers’ fits (if they aren’t already linked.)

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Gen Z fashion historians are on the case, oftentimes identifying and tracking down tricky items.

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Pieces Gen Z deems worth wearing usually exist beyond what’s readily available through traditional ways of shopping. They’re buried deep in Depop scrolls, on sale on luxury secondhand retailers like The RealReal and in the archives of fashion history. The process of sourcing a piece is part of an aesthetic choice and reflects an individual’s style acumen.

All Untangled Up

Somewhere along the way, wired earphones became such a nuisance Dr. Dre and others had to revolutionize the music listening experience with a slew of bluetooth accessories. Gen Z is opting for a more tactile option with wired earphones, thumbing its nose at a wireless future and skirting cordless convenience. “It” girls like Lily-Rose Depp and Bella Hadid are popularizing the look. Shelby Hull, owner of @Wireditgirls–an instagram account dedicated to tracking the wired headphone trend in the wild—muses on the appeal of the not-so-effortless look:

"It’s like, 'How did I end up in this designer outfit looking so cool and put together? It just kind of fell into place,’ Hull said. ‘Wired headphones kind of say that, too. It’s like oh, 'I put no thought into this, I can’t be bothered right now.’"

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Cold, Hard, Inconvenient Cash

Even the mere act of payment is not immune to aesthetic impulse. Young people are using cash more than they ever have before, opting for the physical experience over tap-to-pay. When launched, tap-to-pay was heralded as the easiest way to pay on the go, eventually popping up at every restaurant, MTA turnstile and beyond. Tap-to-pay streamlined paying for your morning commute, splitting the bill and just about everything else. But what it doesn’t provide is the opportunity to match your wallet with your jeans, clip said wallet to your jeans, bedazzle said clip and fish for cash to fashionably hand to the barista. Gen Z knows this all too well.

Intentionally creating bothersome moments may seem like a lot of work, but that’s the point. Each item that creates friction tells a story and thickens the plot of one’s journey to peak individuality. Fashion brands might learn an important lesson here: leaning into the hard-to-find fun of shopping with limited edition drops, product scavenger hunts and throwback capsules will add intrigue and drive consumer interest. Brands can even start to anticipate what conveniences will be skirted in the future in favor of tactile self-expression. For example, will stationary and stamps make perfect free gifts-with-purchases for young people, who are trying to stay off their phones and text less?

In the world of inconvenience, accessorizing a moment trumps owning the latest product. So dig out your tangled headphones, uncrinkle your cash and don’t forget to pretend like you don’t care while you’re doing it.