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GenZ uses nostalgia to cope with a troubled future

By Nazeefa Ahmed, November 30 2023—

Nostalgia is back in style. Through fashion, media, music and countless movie remakes, it appears that society is leaning into the past for support during a time of great global instability. For baby boomers, generation X and millennials, nostalgia makes sense — after all, they have enough of a past to look back on. GenZ’s oldest members, however, are 26, and yet our longing for the past stretches back to times before our existence or consciousness. A survey by GWI shows that 15 per cent of GenZ prefers to think about the past rather than the future, while 50 per cent feel nostalgic for older media, particularly the 90s. How can a generation of young people possibly long for a time they barely lived through?      

Though most generations experience some longing for the past, increasing commodification and technological advancement have catalyzed a counterculture of excessive nostalgia-seeking behaviour. GenZ has only ever known a world that updates and innovates — whether necessary or not — and is rejecting the fast-paced cycle that pushes forward into an uncertain future. The increasing popularity of film cameras, decade-old fashion aesthetics, retro music genres and movie remakes point to an upcoming generation that is struggling to move forward. 

Yearning for a simpler time, GenZ uses nostalgia as a coping mechanism for the bleak present and future. Our generation is entering adulthood with low job prospects, increasing costs and the challenges of affording a mortgage, let alone buying a home. That, in addition to the rise of political uncertainty, extremism, and devastating war imprints fear on the collective consciousness of GenZ — the escapism offered by a past we have barely experienced ourselves but still know to be true becomes irresistible.

Excess nostalgia or futurism has been and is often dependent on the level of social and economic prosperity perceived by the mainstream. During the 60s Space Race, two global superpowers fought to assert global dominance through technological innovation. Space propaganda, retro-futuristic clothing and famous space shows such as Star Trek and Lost in Space painted an image of a prosperous and certain future. For many Americans and allies, now was the time to be alive as the nation’s perceived identity as a democratic global superpower promoted feelings of hope, happiness and stability — astro-fashion, rockets and spaceships galore. 

But the story does not stop there. The 60s was also a time of hippies, large-scale drug use, the Vietnam War, increased crime and the civil rights movement. Counter-culture activists paraded the streets, challenging the neat narrative of the mainstream. The overt racism from both individuals and institutions, the bloodshed across the globe and the widespread opioid abuse of the time are often disregarded in present conversations.

Problematically, GenZ often places a filter on the past in pursuit of an optimistic reality. Numerous online posts put 90s models on a pedestal as the “epitome of beauty” while labelling today’s models as “basic” and “plastic”, forgetting about the toxic diet culture and heroine chic ideals of the 90s era. Early 2000s rom-coms are supreme because “they don’t make them like they used to” despite the lack of media representation of minorities during the time. Film photos of parents and grandparents in addition to their “back in my day” stories curate a faultless image that appears to surpass present realities.   

But to forget the complexity of the eras we romanticize is to minimize the rich history of past generations — to make superficial what should be a source of wisdom. No time period can ever be simplified by a modern remake or a social media edit. No era is objectively better or worse than the one prior. To assume that the past is better without condition is as naive as expecting the future to be a picture-perfect utopia. 

GenZ’s use of nostalgia appears to be harmless but signals a generation yearning for a concrete solution to fix our identity crisis. Ultimately, we yearn for simplicity — for a sensitized world that is more connected and humane. Through misleading narratives from the media currently capitalizing on our tendency to romanticize, we mistakenly perceive the past as an ideal representation of the present we desire.   

Collectively, we may yearn for the camaraderie of Rachel and Monica on Friends or the classy style of Hilary Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We may watch Stranger Things with a tinge of jealousy for missing out on an 80s childhood. But true generational identity develops through authentic, shared experiences that are unique to a particular age group — experiences that are not clouded by the idealization of history nor a promised tomorrow.

This article is a part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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