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Grandma and grandpa are taking over TikTok: Retired boomers find success and fame in the app made for Gen Z

Grandma and grandpa are taking over TikTok: Retired boomers find success and fame in the app made for Gen Z

Larry Canam makes milkshakes for millions of people. But he used to have an audience of just one: his son.

Any Monday or Tuesday in Fredericton, New Brunswick, you can find the 70-year-old hosting his weekly father-son movie and cocktail night. “We’ve done it for a long time,” Canam explains in a gentle inflection mirroring a Canadian version of Mr. Rogers. On the menu at one point or another: John Candy’s Orange Whip in The Blues Brothers, a White Russian from The Big Lebowski, and Jason Bourne’s Cubra Libre. 

One night in early 2021, Canam’s son suggested they put their recipes on TikTok for fun. He initially received a lukewarm reaction after posting a Harvey Wallbanger cocktail to the account @thewhytelephant. But with enough cataloging, requests soon trickled in for everything from Manhattans to margaritas. One viewer requested a milkshake, which Canam initially shrugged off; cocktails were his thing. Eventually, he whipped up a simple vanilla shake, raking in over one million views. 

Canam was shocked, to say the least: “I thought, what is this?” he recalls to Fortune. Two years later, the “spirit alchemist,” as he calls himself in his TikTok bio, has nearly 6 million followers and posts videos ranging from cooking a zucchini loaf to walking through his vegetable garden. The platform became a hobby for Canam to show off all his other hobbies.

“I want it to be something where it’s a slice of life,” he says of his TikTok videos. “This is who I am. This is what I do. I don’t only make milkshakes and cocktails and that sort of thing. I [also] have a garden.”

It’s a third career act for the military vet and former senior retail manager, who is sharpening the bartending hobby he started in his 40s. His success might seem like a Cinderella story, but Canam’s journey towards virality isn’t uncommon for people of his generation. Growing up with a landline and reaching adulthood before the first mobile phone, much less smartphones, entered the commercial world, baby boomers and the silent generation seem to have (against all odds) mastered the art of TikTok. 

While the platform is largely known as a Gen Z app, senior citizens are some of its biggest stars, gaining traction partly due to their authenticity and their age—wise enough to know who they are and to be unabashed about it. Getting started with some help from younger family members, many of these retiree creators found a niche that resonated with viewers looking for connection during the pandemic’s loneliness epidemic. Some have become so successful that they’ve been able to pocket some extra retirement cash during inflationary times and spin off into other business ventures. But that’s of little importance to them—most are just happy it’s provided them with a new hobby alongside gardening, bingo, and Gin Rummy, helping them to set goals and boost their sense of purpose during retirement.

Finding stardom as everyone’s grandparent

When Babs Costello’s daughter Liz urged her to give TikTok a shot over a cup of coffee during lockdown, the 74-year-old resisted at first—she didn’t want to do any TikTok dances like her grandkids. Eventually, she launched @brunchwithbabs with a simple chicken and potatoes recipe from her own grandmother. The former preschool teacher tells Fortune she wasn’t expecting much—“it’s not like we had a business plan”—but found fame nearly overnight.

Often starting with the refrain “Did your mother ever tell you?,” her videos share essential motherly advice and shortcuts to life—how to establish a nighttime routine (write down the top three things you want to do tomorrow), make a breakfast sandwich (wrap them in parchment paper), or pack a cooler (put dry snacks in a wastebasket). Each one sings with her trademark positive outlook, an approachable vibe that reminds her 4 million followers of a beloved teacher they once had. 

“It’s a grandmotherly approach,” says the mother of four and grandmother of nine. “What would your mother do? She’d come over and get you more organized. She’ll let you vent, maybe give you some advice, teach you family recipes. That’s where my authenticity kind of comes through.”

@brunchwithbabs

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♬ original sound – everyone’s grandmother

Lili Droniak, 93, has also reached TikTik stardom thanks to her relatable grandma personality, albeit one that’s a bit more humorous and sassy. The former factory manager behind the account @grandma_droniak aims to make her 12 million followers laugh with Gen Z-style dark comedy—in one video, she dons pig earrings and says, “remind me of my exes, because they are pigs” (the caption below reads “I hope that my one ex that’s [sic] alive sees this video”). “Everybody thinks I’m their Grandma,” she tells Fortune

While Droniak has been making videos with her grandson since the dawn of Youtube when he’d film her driving him around in the car as a teenager, they didn’t start posting consistently to TikTok until the 2020s. Like Canam, she and Costello took off when people were cut off from their family and feeling uncertain about the world. “Here’s this older lady doing normal things, [and] acting normal. I think it gave them a little bit of an anchor during that period, and maybe a little bit of a sense of security,” Costello says. “I touched a chord.” 

As a loneliness epidemic persisted even after lockdown lifted, people of all generations found solace and connection with one another on social media. Costello and Canam and the like found joy engaging with their younger audience, while these Gen Zers and millennials, who often report feeling helpless and pessimistic, likely felt a sense of comfort watching creators that reminded them of home. 

Young adults find his videos “a wholesome sight,” as Canam explains. “They liked the fact that I smile when I’m making a milkshake, the fact that I talk to them.” He believes fabricated nostalgia, which experts describe as a protosocial and intergenerational phenomenon, is also at play. Young people see Canam’s milkshakes he makes on Monday as part of a 60s diner theme, he says, and connect it with the idea of something easy. “There’s a lot going on in the world,” he adds. “It’s pretty terrifying sometimes and maybe just distressing, and they found a site where I keep it positive.”

From community to a newfound purpose—and more money

What started as a bit of fun to connect with others ended up springboarding these retirees into the next chapter of their careers. Costello’s TikTok stardom has spun off into its own business that she runs with her daughter Liz, who previously ran a small influencer agency, and they’ve hired a creative person who helps with onset things like shooting. Costello has landed partnerships with brands she respects and actually uses, like Talbots, and wrote a cookbook called Celebrate with Babs: Holiday Recipes & Family Traditions that went on to become a USA TODAY Bestseller and sold nearly 100,000 copies, Liz says.

While they didn’t share specifics on numbers, brand deals can net TikTok creators from hundreds to thousands per post. Canam, who also has a cookbook in the works and has landed brand deals with mostly distilleries and spirits, says his first partnership with a Canadian Vodka company paid him over $1,500 for a minute-and-a-half video and that a more recent brand deal was “good money.” Droniak’s grandson said she makes close to six figures annually, although that could be on the higher end considering that Droniak has an eight-digit following. 

Lili Droniak, 93, has more TikTok followers than you do.

Courtesy of Lili Droniak

But, if you ask these senior creators, it’s not really about the money—or the fame. Of course, it provides an extra cash flow in a time when retirement costs more and lasts longer as the cost of living and life expectancy goes up. Some retirees have returned to work, due to the need for another income stream or out of boredom. Taking up TikTok is an alternative solution to both for these retirees, who are more focused on the sense of purpose it brings them than anything else.

The hobby provides Canam with goals and keeps him motivated, he says. There’s “just a sense of success and satisfaction of actually being able to accomplish something that I never thought that I would ever do.”

Making money from it is mostly about offsetting the purchases of a video for him; he says he can spend $40 on materials for a single recipe, which can add up. “I’ll never get rich on it and that’s not the intent,” he adds. He doesn’t want his channel to become oversaturated, he explains, and only wants to increase his following simply because it means he’s putting a smile on more people’s faces. 

For Droniak, being a content creator is more about talking to people, giving them advice, and simply horsing around. “I don’t want to take life too seriously,” she says, adding, “I’m older. Right now, I feel like I’m 66 and that keeps me going.”

TikTok has also rejuvenated Costello during retirement, who says she’s recycling the creativity from her teaching years into this new era—like the time she did a post on making a graduation cake. “Some of the richness of that period has been brought over to this one to enhance it,” she says. “At my age, it really keeps me so involved, even the creative aspect. My brain keeps rolling along and it’s going on all cylinders because of this new venture.” 

Sticking it out in their golden years

The French onion soup was simmering in its pot and Canam was just about ready to throw in the towel. Challenging himself to do something different from his usual cocktails was proving difficult, as was editing the process into a video; nothing was coming together easily. Wavering, he decided to still post the TikTok. The fruits of his soup labor proved valiant: The video racked up 21 million views and a comment from Lady Gaga—but it was the comments from those viewers who said he lit up their day that made the biggest difference to him.

Despite the struggle, his go-to strategy of tapping into his old sales skills when video editing to show the sizzle—or finished product—and not the steak, worked. So, too, did his signature straightforward and comforting style. It’s proof that this older generation of TikTok creators has been hacking the algorithm with something quite simple; while it might sound corny, their secret to success goes back to early lessons we’ve all learned about being ourselves and others will follow—millions in these creators’ cases.

Canam says he tries to just be himself online. He’s not looking to get too complicated, making simple recipes and keeping them solely on TikTok rather than plugging them into other social media outlets like Instagram. His best advice: Do something that you like. “If there’s something that you have a real passion for, and it’s gonna come through sincerely, you’re going to be able to talk about it, you’re going to be able to show other people how to do it. And you’re going to be good at it, hopefully,” he says.

Costello is of a similar mindset. “I’m not competing with anyone. I’m just being me. Maybe if you’re younger, it’s more about accumulating a following,” she says, adding that she’s rather just have a good time. “If you’re gonna go out there, then do something that you love, to share something that you’re passionate about. Be true to yourself and then things unfold.” Of course, “you have to stick with it.”

As for what’s next, Costello has another cookbook on the horizon. She takes the opportunities when she gets them, often pushing through any anxiety when they arise. At her age, she says, “it’s good to do one day at a time” and live each moment fully. 

Meanwhile, Canam says he continues to make milkshakes every Monday and is looking into making merch. “Milkshake money has become such a dynamic thing that I could be looking to T-shirts and hats, things that would make money for me on the side that is just separate from everything I’m doing,” he says, adding, “It’s really just the beginning for me.”

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