Stranger Things. Friends. High-rise jeans, but also bell-bottoms and Y2K fashion. Nostalgia has become nearly synonymous with popular culture as these “retro” or “vintage” styles pervade almost every aspect of youthful expression. This “sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations” has always been prevalent, especially as generations age. However, the recently expedited nostalgic process as well as the less “personal” aspect of young people feeling nostalgic for an age they weren’t alive for generates an intriguing question — why does Gen Z love the past so much?
Whether it’s thrifted fashion trends from the decades of our parents or nostalgia-bait TikTok compilation videos of things from elementary school, Gen Z doesn’t discriminate in its longing for the idealistic past. Not only do we long for times that were only a few years ago — even as recent as the summer of 2019 — we also uniquely yearn for a time that wasn’t even ours. We explore fashion trends from the 70s all the way up to the mid-2000s, recycling old trends and terms into new hip colloquialisms, and revisiting cherished media that came from those decades. Gen Z’s “love of mimicry and intertextual references” is deeply apparent in the way we passionately find intriguing aspects of the past and shape them to fit our present. While this isn’t new by any means, it certainly takes up a lot more cultural real estate than in previous generations, with 55 percent of Gen Z saying they prefer “vintage” styles and trends over contemporary culture.
To establish why this has occurred, we must understand how nostalgia specifically serves us. Typically, nostalgia provides comfort in times of unrest and instability. With everything being so unprecedented in recent history, it’s not surprising that young people want to return to what we’ve been told was a more stable time. In fact, this dichotomy of stability is so prevalent in the psyche of young people that most Gen Zers define periods of life in context with large-scale disruptive events— pre-pandemic, pre-9/11 or pre-financial crash, for example. “As [Gen Z] has grown up, they’ve been unconsciously steered to look back at how the world was before these major disasters — even if they don’t have any concrete memories of what that world looked like.” This instability resides in technology too — as soon as one is accustomed to Facebook, Snapchat or Youtube, a new version of technology is released that radically alters the social landscape. “[Gen Z] grew up on VHS tapes, graduated to DVDs, heralded Blu Ray as the dawn of a new era … and likely subscribed to their first streaming service before they even hit their late teens. Their worlds have simultaneously gotten bigger and been crushed into a touch screen.” This incredibly fast rate of change generates a constant feeling of unrest that can be partially soothed by returning to “simpler” times. Frankly, it can sometimes be easier to retreat into aesthetics or memories than to live in the present.
Furthermore, it is impossible to discuss the cultural and social trends of younger generations without investigating the role that technology and social media have played. While it’s undeniable that the internet provides innumerable benefits in many aspects of life, we are becoming more and more aware of the pitfalls of growing up with the looming, constant presence of the web as we delve deeper into the technological age. Technology addiction is a problem that pervades the younger generations with no signs of slowing down, but we are also seeing increased rates of despair in regard to the state of the world, which is due to the immense connectivity we now have with all corners of the globe. Every single day, Gen Z is inundated with information on the climate crisis, political and social unrest, acts of cruelty, racism, violence and the plummeting economy, just to name a few issues. These issues are served on the same platforms where most of Gen Z goes to have fun, decompress or communicate with their friends. This makes the evils of the world seem inextricable from every part of life, without rest. This idea was amplified by the pandemic, which condemned many burgeoning young Gen Zers to an exclusively online lifestyle that expanded the personal struggles of one child to the struggles of the entire world all at once. “’While we love the internet, the pandemic’s grave effect on in-person interaction has made the digital world basically all we have’ … ‘So we feel nostalgic for a time before the internet had become so omnipresent,’” said Michael Pankowski, founder of the Gen Z marketing consulting firm Crimson Connection.
It’s important to note that Gen Z likes to worry about things. To a certain degree, we are one of the most politically potent young generations with a steadfast dedication to improving the state of the world, and nostalgia helps our advocacy in this way too. While internet-founded awareness breeds the desire for comfort and stability, it also breeds the desire for social, political and cultural reinterpretation. In the words of John Green in Looking for Alaska, “imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia.” In other words, Gen Z has been utilizing what we know about the past — the good and the bad — to reshape society to be more inclusive. For example, using the protesting strategies of old activists to inform the organization of current protests or revitalizing the “stay at home” mom culture in a way that is predicated on the agency of the mom and not the expectations of society “What we’re doing feels closer to taking what our parents made and sticking a knife in to see what rings true and what bleeds out, or reclaiming aspects of cultural history that weren’t previously accessible to everyone.”
Using what we understand about the ever-romanticized past, we are actively changing the present into something that is worthy of cherishing. Plus, not all of our nostalgia culture is a result of a yearning for the past. Instead, it helps us advocate for sustainability and inclusivity. “We’re wearing 2000s getup [sic] because we want to be sustainable… We’re using flip phones because we’re trying to be more mindful of our technology use. We’re buying records because more money goes to the artists rather than, say, Spotify. And mullets are back and in the mainstream, not because we all wish we lived in the 80s, but because we’re generally shifting as a society toward [a] more genderless style.”
Growing up with limitless knowledge and awareness due to the role of the internet is beginning to exemplify interesting symptoms. On the one hand, many young people are beginning to feel the weight of every issue in the world invading every second of their days. Unlike previous generations, who were only made aware of issues outside their community via limited news stories, we now hear about the worst things the world can offer on a daily basis, making it feel inescapable. This then causes us to look back and ground ourselves in remembering the simplicity of the past, even if that simplicity only exists through the rose-tinted glasses of reflection. Still, despite the negatives, Gen Z also allows our abounding knowledge of history to help us mold the world into the best one we can imagine. Older generations commonly critique Gen Z for being too optimistic or too demanding when it comes to inclusivity and diversity, but even though our generation is flooded with depressing and fatalistic rhetoric, we have still decided to fight for what’s right and use the failings of the past to do it.
Emily Vega is a junior majoring in English.