Nostalgia is ingrained in the millennial identity. But while this has become an object of mockery, it can actually be a useful coping mechanism in these troubled times.
One day, when doom-scrolling through Twitter, I happened across the most unexpected inter-generational debate I’ve ever read. A spate of millennial roasting by Gen Z-ers on TikTok had found its way to Millennial Twitter. And Millennial Twitter felt attacked.
The mockery was pretty brutal and kickstarted a trend of parodying every part of the millennial social media code, from our emotional over-investment in our Hogwarts houses to our tendency for long-winded expositions about the virtues of the ‘90s.
Now, I’m not here to add fuel to the generational divide, but I have to admit that the TikTokers have a point – now I think about it, most of the millennials I know live up to the stereotype. I, too, am guilty of taking unreasonable pride in my Pottermore-official magic wand (pear wood, phoenix feather core, 13 ¾”, slightly springy) and reminiscing very publicly about blowing dust out of Nintendo 64 games.
But whether you relate to these generalisations or not, they also reveal a recurring theme in how millennial culture is performed online – our memes, infatuations and identities are steeped in nostalgia.
The hyper-nostalgic generation
Millennial nostalgia isn’t exactly a new revelation. For many of us, our clothes and homes are saturated with retro aesthetics. Throwback parties are (or at least, were) the soul of our nightlife. On social media platforms like Facebook, we connect with our fellow ‘90s kids through the pop culture of our childhoods and wistfully remember the times when digital technology didn’t dominate our lives.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a wide consensus that millennials are more intensely nostalgic than previous generations and that these feeling are setting in at a younger age. Having cottoned on to this, brands like Microsoft and Adobe have been using nostalgia in their marketing strategies for years to emotionally engage Generation Y as an emerging target market. But the logic behind these tactics also suggests another peculiarity about millennial nostalgia – it is highly immersive. We don’t want to just look back on the past. Increasingly, we attempt to relive it.
But why might this be? Is millennial nostalgia pure escapism, or something more?
A comfort for the modern world
Following classic generational media narratives, some might say these nostalgic tendencies are further proof that millennials are refusing to grow up and that this is somehow just another means of shunning the responsibilities of adulthood.
However, I would argue that nostalgia is one of the ways we cope with these responsibilities in the reality of our modern world. Afterall, with widespread precarious work, prolonged reliance on shared housing and the rising mental health crisis all disproportionately affecting younger people, it can be hard for many of us to feel like independent adults. With the added fear and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions, these problems are unlikely to subside any time soon.
According to psychologist and nostalgia researcher Professor Krystine Batcho, experiencing a sentimental yearning for the past is particularly likely during times of transition. Given millennials’ permanent state of instability, it’s only natural, that we are reaching for familiar sources of comfort and reassurance.
Moreover, as the first digital natives whose childhoods have been meticulously archived by the internet, ready for us to re-consume, we have unprecedented access to our past that older generations simply don’t have. With the tap of a button, we can peruse a near-complete catalogue of our favourite childhood movies and be instantly transported into their worlds, or dredge up our angsty adolescent Tumblr blogs and share our absurd trips down memory lane with our peers.
Despite the TikTok flack, today’s perceptions of nostalgia are much more positive than they once were in Western cultures. The word itself derives from the Ancient Greek words for homecoming (nostos) and pain (algia). For centuries in Europe, a sentimentality for the past was believed to be a serious disease with causes ranging from cowbells to demons to neurological decline. We are not unique in being negatively judged for our generation’s supposed misgivings.
While nostalgia is sometimes tainted with melancholy, it can have marked benefits for our lives and mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that sentimentality for the past can increase our social connectedness, help us cope with adversity, inspire personal growth and enhance the sense of meaning in our lives.
My own experience of the COVID-19 lockdown has involved a systematic deep-dive into just about every media franchise I obsessed over as a teenager – The Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender and iconic Studio Ghibli films like Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, to name a few. There was also a particularly memorable weekend I spent listening to only vintage Kylie Minogue.
Aside from being timeless cultural masterpieces, these nostalgic things have been a great help in navigating the stress and anxieties of this pandemic. Feelings of nostalgia and the familiar pop culture of my childhood have given me much-needed anchorage when life feels like it’s spinning out of control. It can provide both a euphoric break from reality and a much-needed reminder that no matter what happens, some things will never change.
So, while to some nostalgia may seem like a cringey millennial fad, I, for one, will continue to embrace it unashamedly. Lord knows it’s something everyone could use a little more of these days.
Sophie Wallace is an editor, (sporadic) writer and Master of Publishing & Communications student at the University of Melbourne. She enjoys Nigella Lawson’s vocabulary and talking to herself in the subjunctive mood.