Nostalgia therapy: why Gen Zers look to the past
Are Zoomers – those born into the digital age – becoming the most nostalgic generation? Some have said the same of Millennials, given their obsession with the 80s and 90s – decades which have been extensively referenced in music, fashion, film and television, videogames, internet culture and lingo. Through the advent of digital media and the internet, that generation has been granted a particularly tangible engagement with their past, where those previous were forced to remember their childhoods through often obsolete technology, mementos, TV reruns and deteriorating objects. But as the internet has developed, so has a new age of preservation been ushered in, with Gen Z at the helm – carrying out as much voracious consuming of past media as they are meticulously documenting it.
Yet this question of whether the latest generation of young adults are more nostalgic than those that came before them – whether due to an increase in nostalgic stimuli or the rapid changes of the past two decades – is not so interesting as asking how they are expressing, and utilising, their nostalgia. After all, it is difficult to measure and on the surface, at least, it seems hardly more present in Millennials and Gen Zers than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Even wartime nostalgia, as perverse as that sounds, is present to a degree in those of the Silent Generation.
As an enduring cultural phenomenon, it has appeared in art and literature long before the term was coined in in the late 17th century, which would later generate ‘homesickness’ in English. Though we are beginning to accept some positive qualities to nostalgia now, it had long been considered a psychological, even physical, illness, originally observed in soldiers serving far from home. Alleviation of the ‘disease’, it was found, could be achieved by allowing them to more openly reminisce, and ultimately by discharging them.
The mind deceives
Today we also tend to our nostalgia with, if not home, then homely memories. The media and trends of our youth evoke a time when the world was simple, exciting and warm. Though this never was really the case, memories are not exactly the most trustworthy source of information. Not only can we lose sense of chronology, but memories can be fabricated and appropriated from others. The idealised image of the past we may carry is a distortion of the truth, pieced together from various moments that our brains decided were important, or that confirm the narrative we wish to impose. The BBC’s Claudia Hammond describes memories as not fixed, like videotapes, but flexible, often drawing from different parts of our lives non-linearly. Nostalgia too is not rigid, and rather than rooting us restrictively to the past, can help inform our current world view in a creative, productive way.
At the same time, it is because our memories are so piecemeal, and without a common thread, that nostalgia ends up filling in the gaps. With media from their childhood so easy to access, Gen Zers have been granted a time machine ready to whisk them away from the anxiety and growing pains that characterise their current reality. They can override missing answers, or the feeling that some part of their past was unresolved, with a deceivingly reverent vision of the past. While this may involve lived childhood experiences, it also includes all of the advertising and media they consumed while their brains were still formative.
As developed countries entered into a state of hyperconsumerism, the young minds of Y2K were bombarded with an even greater amount of novel media than before. TV adverts have evolved into loud, colourful and memorable hypnotisms, not only creating an initial novel experience for the viewer, but securing their place in the memory. The abundance of audio-visual media – TV, film, online videos, videogames – that has sprung from the early 21st century onwards has also ensured that our memories remain vivid and tangible. These nostalgic anchor points, continually exploited in current marketing and media, are nonetheless a potent form of escapism.
No longer simply an illness, nostalgia has practically become a form of therapy – with a range of applications.
Time heals all wounds
If ever there was a generation in need of therapy, it's the Zoomers. 7/10 of those between the ages of 18-23 reported symptoms of depression in an American study conducted over the pandemic, while another study showed 70% thought that anxiety and depression were an issue amongst their peers. Economic, social and existential concerns pester young people today, with the prurient nature of social media and instant news breaching the threshold of awareness into hopelessness.
They are struggling and painfully aware of it. Though this could express itself in a bull-headed and aggressive approach to life, this generation is generally empathetic and broadminded (not least a product of the many different points of view they are exposed to), though perhaps less content with a simple life.
So what is the appeal of nostalgia? For one, it offers a brief escape from the pressures they are facing. Though eager to address the key crises, young people today are nonetheless weary with the burden of inheriting the earth. Many feel the tension of recognising the plethora of social, political and environmental issues but secretly desiring ignorance. The world of childhood memories is an irreverent retreat from not only stress, but the politics attached to everything in the adult world.
As well as this it serves as a distraction – sometimes as a good a therapy as any. Somebody with intrusive thoughts, or who finds reality too problematic, may immerse themselves in the lofty ideals, the soaring musical numbers and ideological simplicity of Disney movies, for example.
This not to say nostalgia is always a healthy outlet, because sometimes it can be indicative of serious mental health issues. Extreme anxiety, depression, and other conditions that lead somebody to withdraw from the society may have a social cause, but should be treated clinically, or at least taken seriously.
However, maybe it is not surprising that a generation so conscious about their identity would be drawn to a time when it was a bit more prescriptive. What is particularly interesting is how they use nostalgia to relate to each other.
For many in my age range (the early Gen Zers, or late Millennials) language among peers always drew from a web of references: from film, TV, music and various other media. So extensively did we reference that I wonder now if we were even capable of original thoughts.
While this could appear to condemn modern entertainment as brainwashing and manipulative, this phenomenon is not wholly bad, I think. It shows that each generation has their own language, a way of distinguishing themselves from those older than them. I’m sure most people born in the last century could relate to this to some extent, as the concept of the teenager emerged, proving young people could have a distinct subculture from their parents, and pop culture was validated as a serious social phenomenon, not just the immature sibling of the ‘official culture’ espoused by the ruling classes. Rather than proving they are unoriginal, it shows their scope for creativity.
Listening to an album is not a creative act in itself, but referencing it in a social context can be. The abundance of music mashups and other unlikely art combinations in internet culture represents a willingness to think outside the box and show an appreciation for the past (one that can stretch further back than their own experience) as well as novel forms. No longer just entertainment for the creator and viewer, this ‘social media’ is undoubtedly a form of communication, though perhaps one that is still beyond the comprehension of Boomers and Gen Xers.
This has often manifested itself in the form of memes – a term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe a genetic behaviour that is continually past down but has no observable benefit. It now commonly refers to a fragment of internet media that is shared and replicated virally. Because of the collective nature of nostalgia, this has meant many memes derive from shared memories of past media – which Gen Zers have experienced in a relative abundance.
Even before streaming emerged, access to film and TV had never been so plentiful. The invention of VHS tapes in the mid 70s made owning a movie a convenient reality for the average consumer, while DVDs would later become its cheaper, faster and moreish successor. Meanwhile TV providers were soon expanding to hundreds of channels, many international. Music made an even more dramatic shift to digital in the early 2000s as home computers and mp3 files were popularised; Napster, the iTunes store and the practice of downloading music were revolutionary.
All this meant that early 2000s kids were spoilt for choice with media. Digital media could be far more cheaper, not to mention reliable, than their analogue predecessors. However, even these changes could not hold a candle to what happened later in the decade. YouTube, Spotify and later the iteration of Netflix as a streaming platform (after beginning life as a postal rental service) practically nationalised access to entertainment and media. Of course you still needed a broadband connection at a decent speed, but this has become steadily more attainable and ubiquitous over the past 15 years. That we are able to stream no only without a wired connection, but without a modem (thanks to mobile data) represents an unprecedented accessibility to media.
I think this has created a generation that is a bit more aware of the experiences of those before them, who have a surprisingly vivid picture of not just two decades ago, but five, six – any decade which produced a lot of art and had a very visual documentation of its culture. However, it has also meant, in some cases, that they are less able to engage with the present. This is perhaps what divides Gen Z (although, as with any large demographic of people, many things divide them) into the distinct groups of those who accept their current reality and those who shun it.
A whole book could be written on why a group of people may be nostalgic for a period which they never lived through, but here are some key reasons. There is the illusion that those predecessors had a fixed identity, that their lives were simpler, purer and more righteous and particularly that they had their whole lives set out for them. In the same vein, there is the illusion that the past is inherently more interesting than the present, something particularly easy to be believe given the reverence older generations often give to it.
We have seen this is a number of trends, such as the Vaporwave music subgenre, revival of fashion from the 60s to the 90s and the resurgence of vinyl popularity. I have no doubt that we will continue to see revivalism in fashion, music and art for as long as young people have access to the past – and that they will continue to find creative uses for it.
Saudade is a Portuguese term that describes both a happy recollection of the past and a melancholic yearning for it. If we find ourselves intensively drawn to the past, the hope is that this can be used to construct a positive vision for the future, and not, instead, prohibit us from achieving our true potential. After all, history was a lot more complicated, and less certain, than we would like to believe. Here’s to Gen Z – and those unfortunates who have to follow in their footsteps.