What Is a ‘Vibe Shift,’ and Should You Be Worried About It?

What Is a ‘Vibe Shift,’ and Should You Be Worried About It?
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Do you feel that? Winds in the east, mist coming in — like something is brewing? Has something shifted seismically, as was predicted by this now iconic pre-pandemic tweet? Is a storm coming? Well, sort of, yes. According to Allison P. Davis, writing for The Cut, “A Vibe Shift is Coming.”

Yesterday Twitter picked up “vibe shift” and put it through the trending ringer, debating and mocking the phrase amid the day’s discourse. Even if you aren’t glued to what’s trending on Twitter (teach me your ways, please), you may have heard someone toss the phrase around. How’s this for a sentence that could terrorize your grandmother: “Vibe shift went viral.”

At a time when the word “viral” has never been more diluted, perhaps a true marker of so-called virality is when a piece of content manages to reach the eyes, ears, and minds of people who aren’t as excruciatingly online at all times as yours truly. I think the term “vibe shift” appearing in an Evening Standard headline about The Bank of England transcends your typical Twitter-level discourse, and thus, it has gone legitimately viral. So, what exactly is a vibe shift, and why should you care about it?

Trend-spotting before the trend arrives

To really ground yourself, you’ll want to read Davis’s vibe shift piece. But here’s the gist: Davis didn’t invent the titular vibe shift; that credit goes to trend forecaster Sean Monahan, who Davis interviews. Simply put, a “vibe shift” describes the exact timeframe in which the cultural moment changes.

Poodle skirts are replaced by mini skirts; skinny jeans get booted by boot-leg cuts. That’s fine, tastes shift with the winds of the marketing machine. But as plenty of people tweeted, noting a vibe shift is like trend-spotting when you don’t know what the new trend actually is yet; it’s that feeling of uncertainty, of sensing something has shifted. It tackles the Millennial vs. Gen Z divide, a gap blown wide open by the pandemic. For Davis, the conundrum at the heart of the vibe shift problem is asking yourself:

Do I try to opt in to whatever trend comes next, or do I choose to accept that my last two good years were spent on my couch gobbling antidepressants and wearing “cute house pants” and UGGs?”

Rather than trying to answer any of the questions in the piece honestly, however, social media has busied itself reacting to whether or not the author should be posing them in the first place.

Is the vibe shifting, or are you?

Reactions online ranged from jokes treating the vibe shift like a natural disaster, to earnest concerns about the very premise of a vibe shift. Most negative reactions boiled down to some version of the latter: There’s no such thing as a “vibe shift,” so say the masses; the author is describing getting older. It’s a non-issue, a fancy way of talking about the plain (albeit painful) facts of ageing and growing less culturally relevant. It’s not the vibe that’s shifting — it’s you, ageing out of what’s “in.”

A simpler way to think about it: If the “vibe” refers to “what’s trendy,” then the “shift” refers to “the cruel, relentless ravages of time.”

Here’s where I might lose you: I liked the essay. I think that the idea of a vibe shift captures something important about the collective nature of history, not just the circumstances of individual ageing. And I think a rejection of the term “vibe shift” doesn’t exempt you from one. If anything, wilfully ignoring the vibe shift will widen the already drastic generational gaps in effect right now.

The vibe shift is more than aesthetics

Sure, outgrowing what’s trendy really is part of getting older (or it should be, keeping up with that shit is exhausting). But why does that make the phenomenon unworthy of examination? What a given generation finds trendy is a reflection of their collective ideals and worldview. It’s been argued that the idea of generational cohorts is flawed, but we can’t stop thinking in that way, so we might as well look deeper and consider what we can learn along the way. Does this mean I’m suggesting that the return of low-rise jeans is a coping mechanism for pandemic-related nihilism? Perhaps.

No matter what the specific aesthetic trends are, the vibe shift is a useful tool to try and capture, say, how Gen Z is coping with coming-of-age during a global upheaval the likes of which their elders didn’t have to face at their age.

Every generation thinks they’re the most unique, that the generation before uniquely doomed them, and that the generation after is uniquely entitled. But some generations are more right about this than others: History is always going to treat The Lost Generation of World War I more seriously than, say, Gen X. What’s going to happen to a generation of young adults already defined by a pandemic, a loss of faith in political systems, and the looming reality of climate change — just to scrape the surface?

The vibe shift is already here

I should note one part of Davis’s piece that made my eyebrows shoot up: the prediction of a “return to irony.” Yeah…irony never left. To understand a single good meme, you have to already understand the four older memes that it’s invoking and mocking. Everyone under the age of 25 is at least fluent in irony, if it’s not the only language they speak. Irony is by no means “returning,” but I do agree it’s here to stay.

Still, I like having the term “vibe shift” out in the world. It aptly describes the understanding that we’re not all about to settle back into a pre-pandemic world. If you read The Cut article and concluded Davis sounded like a victim, you missed the point. Modern media literacy seems to underestimate the author at all times, assuming there’s no way that they could be writing with self-awareness, nuance, or irony. Yes, I agree that the author is grappling with getting older. Guess what? The act of grappling with getting older is not wholly separate from the vibe shift. Trends cycle, patterns emerge, and maybe, just maybe, some aspects of a pre-pandemic world won’t (and shouldn’t) survive the vibe shift.

Why the vibe shift matters for you

It’s easy to take the stance of “if you don’t understand it, it doesn’t apply to you.” That’s how my grandmother approached the advent of email, and that lucky lady never once had to deal with the stress of a backed-up inbox. But the consequences of the vibe shift might be harder to ignore.

Let’s not dismiss the “vibe shift” as overthinking the simple act of ageing. It’s a self-aware, ironic wink at the fact that an extremely nihilist generation is trying to find its footing in a pre-post-pandemic world. And whether you buy into it or not, the vibe shift is already well underway.

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