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Millennial pink and Gen Z yellow captured their generation’s economic struggles. Now it’s purple’s turn.

Millennial pink has become a neutral.

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

  • Beloved and hated, millennial pink kicked off a trend of generational colors.
  • Gen Z yellow emerged, reflecting a desire for change. Now, purple undertones mark the colors of the year.
  • Pink is here to stay. One expert told Insider it’s just morphing from a soft hue to a brighter one.

2021 ended on a dark note, as the Omicron wave washed over the holiday season, but the start to 2022 is brighter: it’s purple.

Very Peri, a periwinkle blue that “displays a spritely, joyous attitude” is the Pantone Color Institute’s color of the year. WGSN, a trend-spotting agency based in London, says Orchid Flower, a deep magenta that “creates a sense of positivity and escapism” will define 2022. Both vibrate with a saturated vividness and whisper violet undertones. 

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The hint of purple in Orchid Flower appeals to both men and women, driven by a youth market with changing ideas about gendered hues of pink and blue, WGSN says. It could be the next millennial pink, the range of dusty rose to cotton candy hues that ruled the design world after Pantone dubbed “rose quartz” the color of 2016.

“Millennial pink was one of those important colors that captured the zeitgeist,” Jenny Clark, head of color at WGSN, told Insider. “It pushed the boundaries to become a color which was gender neutral and it felt empowering, youthful, playful, and, most importantly, wearable.”

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Plus, it kicked off the trend of generational colors that align with social and economic movements capturing the mood of a cohort of people with common life experiences. Bold pink in the 2000s symbolized gender equality and non-violence, morphing into a muted shade that represents youth and innocence — appealing to millennials nostalgic for childhood comforts as they dealt with debt and the fallout of the financial crisis.  Gen Z yellow popped onto the scene around 2017, reflecting the generation’s desire for a new economy in a Trump era, and later, as they graduated into a pandemic recession.

It’s typical for the economy to affect consumers’ color choices. During a recession, they seek out familiar and reassuring colors like browns, neutrals, and blacks, Clark said. They’re more timeless than bright colors, which seem like a riskier investment. 

“On the flip side, when the economy is stronger and the outlook is more positive we tend to see a lot more brights and neons,” she added. 

It looks a lot like the shared purple revelry of  Very Peri and Orchid Flower, which signal a hopeful outlook in the face of two very long, hard years.

The rise of millennial pink as a neutral

Pink’s influence dates back to the pastel appliances of the 1950s, then evolved with culture: the National Breast Cancer Foundation; Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel;”  Kate Middleton’s coats.

But the real tipping point for the color’s popularity is its gender blur, Laurie Pressman, Vice President of the Pantone Color Institute, told Insider. Pink and blue emerged as gender markers in advertisement campaigns for things like toys in the ’50s. In the 2010s, millennials challenged traditional color associations.

Jared LetoAs evidenced by Jared Leto, millennial pink is gender neutral.

Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Pink took on a “genderless” meaning, Laura Guido-Clark of color consultancy Love Good Color explained to Insider — and millennials loved it for its “Instagrammability,” she added. “It represented this neutrality for a whole generation, who really cared about gender diversity and openness.”

Designers, Pressman explained, played to millennials who didn’t want gender labels holding them back and showed men and women in their catwalk collections wearing similar colors, silhouettes, and styles.

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This cultural shift turned pink into “millennial pink” — a more delicate, muted shade with blush, rose, and beige undertones. Its restful vibe echoed the wellness boom of the 2010s, Clark of WGSN said. It trickled from the runway into interiors, products design, and branding, from Glossier products and iPhones to Starbucks drinks and Le Creuset cookware. It became a core color alongside neutrals, navy, and white and black.

Enter Gen Z Yellow: The color of school buses and taxi cabs

Social media, says Guido-Clark, is why generations have been so capable of defining new color shifts. 

In 2017, writer and editor Haley Nahman noticed what she called “Gen Z yellow” replacing millennial pink on her Instagram feed. In an article for the now-defunct Man Repeller, she introduced the world to the sunnier shade. It was later embodied in Pantone’s 2021 color of the year, Illuminating.

genz yellowGen Z yellow has even hit the runways (pictured: Cihan Nacar’s SS22 collection).

Ekrem Serif Egeli/Getty Images

Whereas millennial pink represented gender neutrality, Gen Z yellow represents a need for change. Pressman said that yellow — a symbol of sunshine, warmth, and optimism — reflects a generation with hope for the future. It’s a light for Gen Z, who fears repeating millennials’ money problems as they entered a job market blighted by the pandemic recession.  

It’s also a quick signifier of allegiance. “For a generation of digital natives who are used to looking at colorful symbols rather than text, they see color as a mode of expression that offers simplicity and uniformity and as such are leveraging the power of color to tell their story,” she said.

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School shootings, climate crisis, and the Trump administration pushed the generation to the forefront of activism. Yellow’s energy makes it the perfect color for the generation, Guido-Clark said. The color is used for things like school buses and taxi cabs because it’s the first color you see in a wavelength, she explained, symbolizing Gen Z’s need to respond to future economic challenges.

In short, says Guido-Clark, “When the world gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” she said. And that’s what Gen Z is doing.

Color in a post-covid world

With bold hues like yellow and the purple taking over, less than 5% of designers in a survey said millennial pink would be popular in 2022. But Guido-Clark disagrees; she says the softness of millennial pink is just evolving into a bolder shade — much like Orchid Flower.

pinksMillennial pink has merely morphed into Orchid Flower.

KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

The pandemic has supercharged this shift. “What we’ve endured as an entire world, this idea of wanting something hopeful, bright, and optimistic happens when you have these brighter, more energized cues,” Guido-Clark said. “I always think of things as being connected to human need and that we’re responding to social, political, economic, and emotional environments.”

It explains a lot about the colorful Y2K wear Gen Z adopted as vaccinations rolled out and the economy reopened. Guido-Clark thinks Gen Z yellow has the possibility to dominate thanks to its global reach (think Buddhist robes and tumeric), but noted its “fickleness” will make it harder to overtake millennial pink. Yellow, she added, can be anxiety inducing in some shades; its intensity can evoke frustration.

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As for the emerging purple undertones of Very Peri and Orchid Flower, it could signal a brighter economic outlook. Guido-Clark said purple is associated with spirituality and mysticism, which jives with Gen Z’s interest in astrology and solidarity. Given the generation’s connectedness, she added, it makes sense that we’d land in a “softer” place after what the world has endured. 

“I also think of pink as the human heart and a humanistic color,” she said. “And for that reason too, it hasn’t seen its day.”

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