TikTok Sees Shift in User Demographics

Millennials Drive TikTok's Growth as Platform Evolves

by Faruk Imamovic
TikTok Sees Shift in User Demographics
© Getty Images/Drew Angerer

A recent pair of surveys by Pew Research Center has unveiled a surprising shift in the demographics of TikTok users. The analysis by writer Ryan Broderick and researcher Adam Bumas revealed an unexpected trend: Contrary to TikTok's reputation as a "Gen Z app," people in their 30s and 40s comprised nearly 40% of surveyed users. Moreover, this cohort of largely millennials was growing faster than the platform's 18-to-34 cohort.

Broderick suggested that the aging user base could mark the beginning of TikTok's decline, similar to the trajectories of Instagram and Facebook. He posited that the once vibrant, new app might descend into a state of being boring, spammy, and often depressing.

TikTok’s Mainstream Transition

Experts and users, however, propose a different perspective. They believe that TikTok is moving into a new, more mainstream phase. Instead of following the path of Facebook, TikTok could emulate YouTube, which evolved from a youth-centric novelty into the most widely used app among Americans of all ages.

Even if the increasing number of millennial users doesn't signal the end of TikTok, it does necessitate a shift in how the platform is perceived. As long as TikTok can navigate the potential US ban recently voted into law by the Senate, the app appears poised to mature from a platform for young people into a space for everyone, thereby expanding its cultural significance.

Social-media platforms don't necessarily die because their users age. Broderick referred to "enshittification," a term coined by technology writer Cory Doctorow to describe how platforms initially attract users by offering useful tools but gradually degrade the user experience to increase profitability. This phenomenon affects various platforms, explaining why search engines become less effective, why Amazon features more low-quality products, and why users often criticize Microsoft Teams.

This process, according to Kevin Munger, an assistant professor of political science at Penn State who studies generational use of social platforms, is not necessarily linked to the age of users but rather to business strategies aimed at maximizing revenue. "I could imagine that happening to LinkedIn, for example," he noted, emphasizing that it's not about being cool but about business tactics.

The Dynamics of Platform Switching

Doctorow highlighted that the effects of enshittification differ across generations. Younger users are typically the first to adopt new technology and also the first to abandon a platform when it becomes less appealing. This behavior is influenced by the concept of switching costs. Younger individuals, often less tied down by commitments, find it easier to move to a new platform. Conversely, older users, whose lives are more intertwined with a platform for various reasons, find it more challenging to leave.

Signs of TikTok's enshittification are emerging. A Business Insider investigation found that roughly one in three TikToks is an ad. Additionally, TikTok Shop, a QVC-style e-commerce arm launched in September, has received mixed reactions. Trends researcher Casey Lewis mentioned that some users believe TikTok Shop has negatively impacted the app, with creators pushing followers to buy inexpensive products.

TikTok© Getty Images/Michael M. Santiago

Despite this, the platform's young user base remains stable. In 2023, 62% of Americans aged 18 to 29 and 63% of those aged 13 to 17 used TikTok, figures that have remained consistent over time. Gen Z users often reduce their TikTok usage due to concerns about time spent on the app rather than the content itself.

Taylor Lorenz, a technology columnist for The Washington Post and author of "Extremely Online," suggested that the influx of millennial users might benefit TikTok. She noted that millennials have more disposable income compared to teenagers, which could be advantageous for TikTok Shop as it aims to sell products more effectively to older users.

Lorenz also pointed out that YouTube might be a more fitting comparison for TikTok than Facebook. YouTube, initially popular among young people for content such as cat videos, has become a versatile platform used by all age groups. Unlike Facebook, YouTube has maintained its appeal across generations.

Trends and Generational Influence on TikTok

As TikTok's user base ages, generational trends become less distinct. While most trends, such as baggy jeans, start with Gen Z, they often gain traction among millennials and beyond. Lewis observed that Gen Z users post about thrift store finds, prompting millennials to follow suit and purchase more expensive versions of those styles.

This dynamic reflects a broader desire among millennials to participate in youth culture, a phenomenon partly driven by economic factors that have delayed traditional markers of adulthood for this generation. Conversely, some trends, like the Stanley cup craze, have trickled down from millennials to younger generations, showcasing the fluidity of influence on TikTok.

While the Pew data indicated that users aged 35 to 49 were slightly more likely to upload videos than their younger peers, the platform's algorithm serves different content to different users. Some users experience more content from older creators, while others do not notice a significant change.

The resurgence of Y2K and 2000s nostalgia, driven primarily by Gen Z, has been amplified by the growing millennial audience. This interest in early digital culture and fashion trends underscores the unique position of millennials, who remain deeply engaged with youth culture.

The future of TikTok heavily depends on the quality of its algorithm, especially in light of potential changes stemming from the US ban. If the algorithm continues to deliver a positive user experience, the platform may remain popular. However, any decline in algorithm performance could jeopardize TikTok's standing.