'Live, laugh, love': The most crushing Gen Z insult, explained

·6 min read
Gen Z is still using the phrase
Gen Z is still using the phrase "live, laugh, love" — but not in the same way "Facebook moms" are, say these teens. (Photo: Getty Creative)

For decades now, a certain phrase has been appearing on motivational posters, necklaces and, thanks to a particular explosion in the early aughts, in the home goods aisles at stores like Target, Marshalls and TJ Maxx: “Live, laugh, love.” The saying is a paraphrase of Bessie Anderson Stanley's 1904 poem "Success," which reads, “He achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much." And while "Live, laugh, love" is just one example of a phrase used in inspiring home decor, it has, for whatever reason, now reached iconic status.

Yet when Gen Z uses "Live, laugh, love," it's not exactly to inspire. Instead, the generation coming of age right now has stripped the phrase of all its earnestness, making it a collective inside joke — something pretty evident with a quick scroll of Twitter or TikTok.

So why the shift? Kennedy Peters, the 11-year-old daughter of Yahoo Life editor Terri Peters, routinely uses the phrase “Live, laugh, love” with her friends, and shared how she thinks its ironic usage really kicked off on TikTok in 2019.

“It started with videos of teenagers at Hobby Lobby,” she explains. “Teenagers would go and talk in weird accents and read the signs there — things that said like, ‘Dream Big’ — and make fun of them. There were a lot of ‘Live, laugh, love’ signs, so people started saying that.”

Fellow Gen Z source Tara, 13, agrees that there’s something inherently silly about “Live, laugh, love.”

“The phrase ‘Live, laugh, love’ is kind of funny. You see it on Target signs that are like, ‘Enjoy life! Live, laugh, love!’ But it sounds very stupid,” she explains. “On its own, without much context, it’s like — OK, enjoy life. Whatever. But when you do think about it, it’s like, ‘What does that even mean? What are you saying?’”

Stefan Pollack, the author of Disrupted, From GenY to iGen: Communicating with the Next Generation, isn't surprised by Gen Z's take on the phrase.

"As far back as 2012, when we were initially researching Gen Z for my book, we found that authenticity is one of the primary pillars that drive them. 'Live, laugh, love,' for younger generations, embodies the core inauthenticity they see in older generations. It has become shorthand for a society that is viewed as shallow or without true purpose," he explains to Yahoo Life in an email.

"As represented in its purest form on places like TikTok, Gen Z humor embodies a sort of optimistic cynicism. In other words, they use humor to detach from what other generations view as important so they can focus instead on what is truly important. They are cynical in that they don’t subscribe to the same values as others,reaf but optimistic in that their values are stronger in some ways. This unique blend makes their humor more cutting and also more authentically pure than other generations."

On TikTok, the hashtag #LiveLaughLove has more than 1.2 billion views. Many of these videos feature teens giving tours of their homes in which multiple "Live, laugh, love" signs appear, typically in that classic, loose-script font. Often, it's accompanied by artwork featuring other earnest phrases, like "Family is everything," "Gather," and even, "In this house, we run on coffee and love."

Kennedy sees “Live, laugh, love” as the battle cry of “Facebook moms” who share Minion memes and aren’t always nice to retail workers. Basically, she says, it’s “Karens” who are passionate about living, laughing and loving.

Fortunately, her own mom won't meet such a fate, thanks to Kennedy's influence.

“Me and my friends say it mockingly, so [my mom] is scared to ever say it,” Kennedy says. “We don’t have any signs of it in the house from me and my brother making fun of it … It’s just cringey.”

Now, however, Tara says that she and her friends' use of "Live, laugh, love" has become so common it loses most of its original associations in everyday conversation.

“My friend would say something I disagreed with, and I would be like, ‘That’s not very live, laugh, love of you,’” she says. “Or you can just use it as a sentence filler."

With this new lingo, says Pollack, "Gen Z is encapsulating the quick evolution of language through shorthand used on platforms like TikTok. Fluency is based on the understanding of shorthand and self-referential inside jokes, which exponentially increases and perpetuates through the viral nature of social media. Perhaps this effect on language is one of the more drastic we’ve seen in three generations."

"Live, Laugh, Love" isn't the only phrase that Gen Z is borrowing from older folks. According to Kennedy, Gen Z has jokingly crafted its own version of “Live, laugh, love,” which, of course, is also dripping in irony: “Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss,” which is more of a dig at Millennials than it is the Gen X/Baby Boomer Facebook moms. There was once a time when being a "girlboss" was an empowering thing for women, but now, the term is more often used in conversations about the failures of white feminism.

Kennedy Peters poses with a
Kennedy Peters poses with a "Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss" sign. (Photo: Terri Peters)

“It’s used as an insult, as well. I say it to my friends when they’re being cringe,” Kennedy explains. “If my friend sends me a meme that she thinks is funny, but is not, I’ll say ‘Yaas, gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss, slay queen.’ Girlboss is such a bad thing now.”

It's just more proof that Gen Z is putting its values in its inside jokes.

"In my anecdotal experience, Gen Z is cynical about the status-quo, perhaps more so even than Y or X; however, they are optimistic about their ability to change it," Pollack explains. "They don’t have the same emotional investment Y, or X has in cynicism and have just accepted that the world was given to them in a dysfunctional state. But unlike other generations, Z refuses to accept or tolerate the expectations on their limitations or behavior, and they have no tolerance for superficiality."

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