One morning in 2015, as 59-year-old Sally Misha Hamana waited for a department store clerk to serve her, a man — “a gentleman,” she says — lined up next to her. “I like your hair,” he told her. His throwaway comment left her speechless. She’d stopped coloring her grays a few months back, and her cropped pixie cut was 100% silver. “What does it matter what I look like?” she’d thought. “Nobody sees me anyways.”
The struggle began in her forties, when she was marketing a Texas rodeo. People began talking over her. Dismissing her ideas. Long-term colleagues sidelined her. It took forever to get served by store clerks. “People looked past me, through me. I was really struggling,” she says. It got harder each year. “Suddenly you’re just this middle-aged woman and you’re not standing out. I didn’t feel relevant.”
The offhand compliment flipped a switch inside her. She’d been seen. “It was a small thing, but it helped me see myself again,” she says. “Yes, I’m older, I have gray hair, but I have a lot of life ahead of me. I needed to get back to a life and personality that was more me.”
On February 8, Hamana, now 65, joined TikTok (username SallyMisha). She doesn’t speak till her fourth video, when she announces Louisiana is “colder than a whale digger’s ass.” The next couple of videos follow the same vein, with an ode to Henry Cavill and the TV show Bridgerton. But things ratchet up in her 14th video, “Invisible,” posted March 2. She appears in a pale gray tee, grayish mauve spectacles, with her silver hair loose around her face. “When I turned 50, I became invisible,” she announced. “I faded from view… I became a middle aged woman of no distinction. I felt like a ghost.” She eyeballs the camera. “To my friends in midlife, I see you.”
The video struck a chord, amassing well over 20,000 likes, 4,000 comments, and hundreds of shares, rocketing her followers from the low single digits to the mid-thousands.
There’s a reason her words resonated. Western society has never been kind to the aged, prizing youth and vitality above all, exemplified in cult hits like Logan’s Run and Death Becomes Her. That helps explain why Americans spent $16.7 billion on cosmetic surgery in 2019, with the bulk of procedures in the anti-aging sphere.
This endemic disregard and devaluation of intergenerational experiences, especially if they’re women, does real harm, promoting sweeping generalizations that cut smart, vital people out of the conversation. Enter TikTok.
For a growing number of midlifers, the short-form video app has helped them carve out a space for self-expression and communities where they’re seen and heard. It’s been a surprising but welcome addition to their social lives, from both the content consumer and content creator perspectives. Despite TikTok’s flashy Gen Z exterior, in June 2020 — the most recent data that’s publicly available — 21% of all TikTok Android app North American users were over 40, reports Statista. Daniel Levine, an online trends expert, credits this to TikTok’s algorithmic sauce, explaining that it’s been integral to attracting and keeping Gen X users. “You don’t need to ‘find’ your tribes, because TikTok automatically finds them for you,” he says. “It’s a quick, easy way to express ideas, connect, and share meaning.”
After her “Invisible” video was such a hit, Hamana posted a four-part series. “Your response moved me,” she tells her audience. She’s unsurprised it struck a chord. “I’m interested in meaningful content, and in retirement, conversations are what I miss the most,” she says. She responds to every comment.
“Society doesn’t see me, and I’m not sure I see me anymore, because I don’t see a reflection of me anywhere.”
In Atlanta, 60-year-old Cheryl Barkan doesn’t post on TikTok, but spends two to three hours a day on her feed. “I was surprised when it spoke to me,” she says. “I’m not a social media savvy person.”
Barkan downloaded TikTok in 2020, encouraged by her quarantining-at-home children. She never sought out midlife content or used any hashtags, but somehow her feed morphed from Gen Z dances into social activism and commentary, she says. The faces in front of her were older and looked more like her. She felt like she was acknowledged and included in the conversation.
“You become less visible the older you get,” Barkan says. “Society doesn’t see me and I’m not sure I see me anymore, because I don’t see a reflection of me anywhere.” But on TikTok, she’s acknowledged. These are her people.
Barkan enjoys a range of content; makeup tutorials by women in their fifties and sixties. Skincare advice without the “anti-aging” tagline. Moms getting real about parenting stressors. Sex jokes. Refreshing discussions about social justice, which are hard to find in her conservative suburbs. TikTok did not serve her stereotypical “older woman” memes or patronizing creators — it was fresh, funny, and most of all, relevant.
“TikTok made me feel free, like you can still have irreverence or passion and stay involved in causes without disappearing into your age,” she says.
She’s become something of a TikTok evangelist, checking the app first thing in the morning with her coffee (it’s replaced the morning news) and has told her friends to sign up. “I’m hooked,” she says.
Barkan is a fan of 45-year-old Jamayla Gray, aka JaiGray, who works as an actress and runs substance abuse workshops in Los Angeles when she’s offline. In many of her videos, she discusses day drinking. “It’s funny because this is what we’re doing right now. We’re all stuck at home. It makes people laugh, but at the same time they’re relating to the subject,” she says.
JaiGray’s TikToks range from parenting humor — dishing about disconnecting the Wi-Fi when her kids act out (!) — to getting real about relationships. “Telling your partner where you are and what time you’re going to be home is not being controlled, it’s showing respect,” she told her 24,000 followers (seven times as many as her Insta, for anyone keeping score).
Gray joined TikTok in May 2020 due to lockdown boredom, and something about the platform just clicked. “It’s no judgment, it’s just fun,” she says. “They’re saying things that you want to say in public, but you know somebody will get upset… Here, you can be honest and open.”
Gray, a Gen Xer, had kids in her twenties and says that meant she missed out on a lot.
“Now I’m in my 40s, I will act the fool and MYOB, and TikTok loves it,” she says.
Christine Maziarz, 49-year-old administrative coordinator at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, is also a big fan of the platform. (She’s emblazoned her Linkedin bio with “💚 TikTok!”.) But she opened her account, @emptynestcoach, as a joke.
“My daughter begged me not to be there,” she says. “She’s like, Mom, they’re so mean to people your age.” But the app hooked her.
“The energy on TikTok is more fun than anywhere else online,” she says. “Instagram doesn’t feel as reachable or attainable… Plus TikTok is really good at curating content you like.”
Maziarz’s side hustle is coaching parents through becoming “empty nesters” when their kids move out. She also has a podcast. It’s become part of her TikTok schtick: There’s one video where all she does is grab her head and scream while she slides across a gleaming wood floor. She captioned this, “Empty nest syndrome decides to pop in.” Her point is that it’s okay not to be okay.
“Everyone wants a quick fix, but at some point, they need to deal with their emotions and figure out how they can move forward,” Maziarz says. “I remind them that at 50, you’re just getting started.”
But even as midlife-Tok grows, the perception that TikTok is just for kids persists, drummed home by headlines like, “If you are over 30, then TikTok is not for you,” and writers who tell the over-thirties to “stay away from the record button.”
Emilie McMeekan, co-founder of The Midult, an outlet for “funny, digitally-literate, and extremely anxious” middle-aged women, thinks that’s ridiculous. “There’s a feeling that if you check out of technology you check out of life,” she says. “We enjoy being part of the cultural conversation.”
Sure, some of TikTok’s content skews young, she admits, but that’s not a bad thing. McKeekan admires Gen Z’s social activism and transparency around anxiety and mental health, especially lockdown-induced stress. TikTok also has a nostalgic vibe, she says, with the resurgence of music and media from the nineties. “What can I say? We identify.”
TikTok power users like over 50 vibes and sueover50 have made the app a welcoming space. “The 40-plus want to stay on TikTok because there’s less hate, less judgement,” says Alessandro Bogliari, CEO of The Influencer Marketing Factory, which connects brands to influencers. “They can make fun of themselves without taking everything too seriously.”
Many stories about social media end in doom and gloom, with finger-wagging portents of internet cesspits often blamed on infernal algorithms. For sure, there are problematic rabbit-holes on TikTok, but for middle-aged communities, the algorithmical sauce continues to serve up smart, social content that doesn’t pigeonhole them, and (for now) broadens their communities and builds up their self-esteem, both on and offline.
“In retirement, conversation is what you miss the most,” says Hamana. “The back-and-forth, that’s where ideas come from.” What she does is deceptively simple. “I see you, I hear you,” are phrases oft repeated. “When you’re in an invisible hole, you don’t need platitudes or pep talks,”she says. “You need someone to take your hand and say, I’m here for you, I see you. It’s powerful.”