Why Are Millennials The Most Nostalgic Generation Ever?

Now is this generation’s time and yet, nostalgia reigns in popular culture. Our night outs are throwback nights. We use the Internet to search for 00s and 90s archive clothes to wear. We have access to Spotify and, still, we buy vinyl. We revisit the past with flashbacks and time hops. Are millennials more nostalgic than any other generation? And, can nostalgia ever help us move forwards?

Why Are Millennials The Most Nostalgic Generation Ever?

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

This is the 2010s – the decade with no name. What defines it? 'Neo-nostalgia' has been bandied about, thanks in part to the throwback Thursdays, flashback Fridays and other nostalgia-filled rhetoric that punctuates the language of this decade’s generation.

There’s something comforting about the past, isn’t there? Streaming old Friends episodes on your state of the art laptop/tablet/smartphone while you recover from a hangover is soothing – a modern day equivalent of leaving the embers of a fire burning gently in the background while you wind down.

It’s a familiar show, one you’ve probably seen almost every episode of. You know what happens in the end, and yet, still, you watch. Perhaps you’ll post an Instagram throwback of the characters too, with a funny caption, of course. Then maybe you’ll click on a link, sold to you by a digital news site on Facebook, with a headline that reads something like: ‘The Friends Reunion Is Definitely Happening.’

What’s that you’re feeling? A pang of nostalgia? Stirrings of yearning for the days when you used to sit down after school on a Friday night and tune into Channel 4, where Friends dominated the 9pm slot for years. A throwback to when you were still too young to be (legally) hungover.

In fact, how many hours do you think you’ve spent, collectively, scrolling through old pictures on Facebook in your adult life? The social network’s 'on this day' feature, is a nostalgia machine. It encourages you too look back on your life, curates a retrospective of your greatest hits for you and sends you on a clicking spree through old images – it’s a tour of parties at university when you had a bad fringe, various ex partners you thought you’d forgotten and people you didn’t even know you once knew.

The hashtags #TBT or #FBF are no different. They’re digital time hops, a chance to dig through the archives of your own existence in order to take the attention of the present and turn it on the past. There are also entire Instagram accounts dedicated to sharing 90s and early 00s pictures of the Spice Girls and other stars like JLO, Britney and Sarah Michelle Geller as Buffy. The first generation to grow up online, millennials exist, Janus-like, on the Internet – simultaneously looking to the past for inspiration and representing the future.

The New Nostalgia: Why Can’t Millennials Move On

Now is our generation’s time. And yet, nostalgia reigns in popular culture. Our night outs are throwback nights – R&B classics (see WorkIt) and Old Skool Garage (see Joyride or the renewed popularity of Ewen Spencer's work) being particular favourites. Every film feels like a remake – last year there was a new Star Wars film which, perhaps deliberately, held onto it’s decidedly 70s aesthetic. It also extends to the clothes we wear, from the proliferation of 90s fashion on the high street at Topshop, Urban Outfitters and Asos to the higher end with emerging designers like Londoner Caitlin Price, who has cited drum and bass raves and 90s club wear as their inspiration, or Marques Almeida, who reference 90s grunge in their sell out collections.

Adele pictured proudly wearing a East17 1995 world tour jacket and quoting the bands lyrics.

What Is Nostaliga?

Dr Tim Wildschut is Associate Professor within Psychology at the University of Southampton where there is a group dedicated to the study of nostalgia. He says nostalgia is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.’

Nostalgia, has its roots in the Greek – nostos, means ‘to return home’ and algos, meaning ‘pain’. It is the fact that we cannot recover the past, that we cannot ‘go home’ which makes up the power of it’s appeal. Of course, added to the mix is the fact that it’s not the past as we actually experienced it but as we imagine it now, idealized and edit in memory.

As to why we get nostalgic or experience feelings of nostalgia, Dr Wildschut says ‘there can be many different reasons. One reason is that nostalgia can help us to overcome psychological challenges, like loneliness or a sense that life is meaningless.’

And yet, in pop culture today, nostalgia is being celebrated, the past is being upheld culturally almost more than the present.

Wearing Your Nostalgia On Your Sleeve

One way this has manifested is not only I what young people are wearing but how we are buying our clothes.

once a Facebook sharing group for niche, mostly 90s and 00s streetwear turned London pop up shop, was established back in 2012. It quickly became one of the most influential fashion sites in the UK – a go-to for people who wanted to know what was in and out amongst millennials. It now, arguably, dictates what young people are wearing. If it’s cool on Wavey Garms then it’s cool IRL.

It was set up by Andres Branco, he’s got the flu so we’re speaking to his sister, Rhiannon who’s currently presiding over their new pop up at Box Park in Shoreditch where they sell 90s and 00s pieces from Nike to Evisu, Prada and DKNY.

When it started the name Wavey Garms was the name was ‘just a bit of a pisstake’ Rhiannon says, ‘and it just grew and grew and grew - it just happened organically. We saw what was in demand’.

The brands that are particularly hot do do change, she says, ‘last year it was Moschino and now sportswear is really big – Lacoste, Ralph Polo even old Nike stuff.’

Why does she think young people today are looking backwards to recent decades like the 00s and 90s for fashion inspiration? ‘One thing that I was saying to someone earlier on today is that our following is quite young’ she says, she’s the same age as me, we’re 28. ‘The Wavey Garms crowd who wear head-to-toe vintage Moschino are like 17.’ What strikes her particularly is the depth of their knowledge and passion for the era – an era that she and I were growing up in when they were toddlers – ‘they know so much about it, they’re really obsessed with this culture. I remember some of this from when I was young but they must have been about 3!’, she says.

I ask her what she thinks about the revival of garage music, which is closely tied to this particular moment in fashion. ‘Garage now is so young’ she says, ‘I was talking to [UK Garage pioneer] Scott Garcia and he was saying how happy he is that it’s come back round and had its time – there’s been a big revival – he’s got a son who’s 19 years old and apparently it’s all he and his mates listen to!’

What’s striking is how exacting people are when the dress to reflect this era, does she think this has anything to do with the internet? With being able to access archive images easily? ‘I do wonder how they get it so spot on’ she says, ‘maybe its down to the internet. When we were younger I would to look up to my cousins and how they styled it but now you can just look at Instagram for inspiration.’

Similarly, the rebirth of the Adidas superstar, and effective rebranding of Adidas Orignals, points to a specific kind of cultural awareness and nostalgia. The shoe has long been an icon with ties to music culture since hip hop legends Run-D.M.C. adopted it in the 80s. Decade on decade it’s been embraced by different style tribes, including girl bands of the early 00s.

Now it’s back – and more popular than ever. In 2015 Superstars were one of the most googled items. Gazelles the Britpop shoe, almost made a comeback. We’ve also seen Baby G watches, now 21 years old, make their way back into the cultural mainstream, ditto chokers which are quite possibly the most 90s accessory going. The only thing that hasn’t made a comeback seems to be over-plucking your eyebrows.

Using The Internet To Go Analogue

Interestingly, despite the proliferation of Spotify, vinyl sales surged by 30 percent in 2015. People use the internet to go analogue and purchase old clothes, old music, to look for archive images and upload archive film. CD sales continue to dip year after year, but vinyl rises steadily in the US and UK. Perhaps mini discs could yet be back.

Historically being nostalgic or using nostalgia as a form of expression in art or literature has not been seen as a good thing, rather it’s been viewed as the antithesis of progression and innovation. Miuccia Prada once said ‘nostalgia is a very complicated subject for me. I'm attracted by nostalgia but I refuse it intellectually.’

Why is nostalgia regarded so scathingly, why is shame attached to it? It has, at various points in history, even been regarded as a type of psychological disorder.

Dr Wildschut suggests that perhaps this is ‘because it has often been confounded with homesickness. People who spend time away from home often experience loneliness and sadness. Loneliness and sadness may trigger nostalgia, in an attempt to counteract these negative states.’ ‘In the past’ he says, people may have inferred and assumed that it is nostalgia which causes loneliness and not the other way around. ‘That is’, he points out, ‘they viewed nostalgia as a cause of (rather than adaptive response to) loneliness/sadness.’

He points out that nostalgia can, actually, be a force for good. ‘Our research indicates that nostalgia can have many positive effects: it increases a sense of social connectedness, it boosts self-esteem, it imbues life with meaning, it fosters a sense of continuity across time. These are all important psychological functions.’

As I write this I check my emails on my phone, an email pops up from Selfridges. The title? ’10 reasons why we love the 1990s’. The blurb reads: ‘the 90s are officially back in fashion. We pick our ten favourite style revivals and show you how to pull them off for 2016.’

There you go, it’s official. The 90s are back in fashion. I’m not sure they ever stopped being fashionable. Nostalgia sells, it’s used by marketers and advertisers to tap in to something deep inside us which makes us want to buy things that remind us of our youth, or of a time in the past which is particularly venerated.

Are Millennials More Nostalgic Than Other Generations?

Are millennials the most nostalgic generation yet? Dr Wildschut doesn’t think so, ‘nostalgia is a fundamental human emotion’ he tells me, ‘and I think it is unlikely that this suddenly becomes more prevalent in one generation compared to others.’

And yet, when I ask him, whether he thinks social media, the life blood of millennials, lends itself particularly to the presentation, expression and sensation nostalgia he rethinks this. ‘I think social media is ideally suited to trigger and share nostalgia’ he tells me. This might be one reason to propose that nostalgia may, over time, become more deeply embedded in our culture and everyday language. So, contrary to what I said before, there might be some reason to speculate that, due to the advent of social media, nostalgia is on the rise.’ Nostalgia, in a digital age, no longer relies on an individual or specific memory, desire or event: it is fed and encouraged online, topped up relentlessly by easy access to an infinitely recyclable and shareable past.

And, if nostalgia is a form of escapism. A longing to return somewhere, to a time where things were better or easier or more familiar, could the fact that young people have it quite hard have anything to do with our propensity to look backwards? We were born in a boom – in the 80s and 90s - but graduated into adulthood during a period of bust.

‘Yes, that is possible’ Dr Wildschut says, ‘scholars have proposed that change—be it in society or in our personal lives—triggers nostalgia. And that nostalgia then functions to maintain a sense of stability and continuity over time.’

There’s more to this than buying back issues of The Face like a digital archaeologist and displaying them via Instagram posts for others to see - you can also look backwards, to the past, and use what you see to push things forward in the present.

The Decade With No Name

There are different types of nostalgia. You can reject the past, selectively pick what was good and take it into the future with you or you can linger, looking longingly at something that was and is no more, as a way to distract yourself from the uncertainty of the present and unknowability of the future.

A bit of sentimentality never hurt anyone but we should beware of looking to the past too much. We must engage with the present. The 00s and the 90s changed culture forever, that’s what’s so appealing about those two decades. Listen to Garage until you’re sick of it, gorge on re-ups of archive Spice Girls images and watch vintage episodes of The Simple Life until you empathise with Paris Hilton – but – don’t forget to put time aside think about what you want this decade - the decade with no name - to go down in history for.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

How Tinder's Stopping Us Having Sex

Gemma Styles: Here's Some Proof That Nostalgia Isn't Dead

FCUK Tees And Adidas Poppers: Shit We Wore That Now Makes Us Cringe

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us