Nostalgia: A Generation’s Coping Method

Nostalgia: A Generation’s Coping Method

The ache for homecoming. That’s the origin of the word nostalgia. And, as we all know, home is where the heart is. So, where are the hearts of my generation? What do we associate with “home?”

The reality is I don’t think we know. We were all born to a transitional period in global history, one that has yet to slow. By the time I was 18, I was longing for the feeling of an old Polaroid camera or my childhood film cameras. For me, photography is a primary way of keeping track of time, and the days of film cameras and going to Eckerd’s to develop the film is one of the last times I felt social stability.

Living in the sentimentality of nostalgia grounds me, and lets me look to the future with less despair, and maybe even outright hope.

Turns out, I’m not the only one. Nostalgia has been cited as a way to combat depression and increase optimism for the future. A bona fide coping method we millennials, and our successors, are ascribing to full throttle. To what do I refer? Let’s break it down.


The Symptoms and their (Hypothetical) Causes

Uncertainty, inconsistency, anxiety.

I have definitely heard these words used before to describe us “young’uns” and while any prior readers will know how I feel about stereotypes about my generation, there’s something to this. Note, however, that I’m calling these symptoms, not just saying we all suffer from this, and I’d also say it’s not just us.

Speaking from personal experience, I learned pretty young that planning for the future isn’t effective. Just take for example the shock of 9/11, or the economic crisis of 2008, both events threw the reality we lived in into a tailspin.

The brunt of these emotional and social catastrophes occurred when I, and the others in my generation, were just beginning to understand the world as children and as young adults. All throughout high school and college my world was bombarded with the headlines of “worst mass shooting” and “terrorism.” Studies about “desensitization” filled my psychology class and communication courses, talking about not just how fictional material is changing the way people perceive crime, but how the news media are doing the same thing.

Even technology keeps changing at a rate that makes the job market and economic investments unpredictable to say the least. At this point, there’s a constant battle between the necessity of using robots for mass production and the morality of taking jobs from workers.

College degrees have become simultaneously more necessary because of the competition for jobs between those with higher degrees and less necessary if you can prove your technical skills independently. Today, it can be more lucrative and less risky to create a start-up than to get a full-time job at an established corporation — just look at Facebook and Snapchat.

Looking to the political realities of the past decades, we still don’t find stability. Changing power structures have left the international community susceptible to anti-immigration notions, and populist movements that are changing the status quo (for better or for worse). In the US we have seen new political realities every few years, with George W. Bush’s war on terror, the first black president, and now the uncertainty of Trump’s Twitter government. The inconsistency of government, even in just the US, is another example of the tumultuous nature of the world I and those in my generation, and this new generation, have grown up in.

The reality is, planning for the future, feeling certain about the direction of the world seems impossible when considering the rhetoric in the news or the societal realities of the past few decades.

This uncertainty creates a certain anxiety on a societal level. It’s not just you or me who are going to the doctor with anxiety about money, politics, and more, it’s everyone. Whether we call it anxiety or not, it’s clear to see how the volatility of the world (and the constant news cycle) might be making the world scarier and less certain.


The Coping Mechanism

With all of the upsets of the past few decades we’ve had to find a way to cope with our social anxiety and nostalgia seems to be the prescription of choice.

Studies have shown that nostalgia can help people to deal with difficult times by allowing them to focus on positive times in the past. Nostalgia is also more common during periods of transition in one’s life “like maturing into adulthood” or periods of social change, so it’s no surprise that nostalgia has become an integral part of our culture.

There’s nostalgia in absolutely everything: fashion, movies, TV, tech accessories, video games, cameras, the list goes on and on. Today, nostalgia is so ubiquitous that it occupies every part of our lives. Most often it seems propagated by those of us in the Millennial generation, largely because of our presence on social media.

Oddly enough, when people in their 20s and 30s experience nostalgia it’s deemed “early-onset nostalgia.” So, the fact that we have become obsessed with #ThrowBackThursday and #FlashbackFriday is a true social phenomenon. Forbes even suggests using nostalgia is a highly effective marketing strategy (any Mad Men fan probably agrees).

Still, it comes as no shock.

Technological advances galore, economic hardships, war, terrorism, there really hasn’t been any stability in our society, so people have a desire to look back on something stable as a reference. Especially those of us who experienced all of this during our youth, one of the most transitional phases in a person’s life.

We have brought back vinyl records and G-Shocks, as well as Star Wars and classic Nintendo in order to cope with the uncertainty we deal with. And it’s not only an innate coping method, it’s also an effective one.

People who experience nostalgia have been shown to be happier and have more self-esteem than those who don’t. Other studies note that nostalgia functions as a “stabilizing force” that allows us to look at the future with more hope by reflecting on the patterns of the past.

But, not everyone sings the praises of this coping method. The reality is that, while nostalgia can help us to understand our situation and feel hopeful, it is also a form of self-deception. We look back on the past for the happy times, ignoring the context of the situation we were in. We forget about the pain and difficulties in the past, using the rose-colored lens to feel secure in our future.

Today, with two generations growing up in unknown waters, with technology changing our realities with every wave, it seems we’ve all started holding on to the safety rail that is nostalgia.

Final Thoughts

A generation born into transition. Another one born into uncertainty. Coming of age in a world where fiction and reality cross so incessantly it becomes impossible to tell them apart is a sort of hallmark for those of us that were born in the millennial generation. What’s to come for the next generation as they become adults, is still to be seen.

Still, both generations seem to be caught in the same nostalgia; a permeating sense of sentimentality that pervades everything from fashion (Adidas superstars) to apps (Pokemon Go) to photography (Fujifilm instax) to social media trends (#TBT).

I can’t prove that it’s because of the political tumult, the technological boom, or the economic instability that nostalgia seems so prevalent right now. I can’t even definitively prove that it’s more prevalent than it used to be, but I know that it seems that way to me, and I wonder: what does it mean for the future that we are living for the past?

3 Replies to “Nostalgia: A Generation’s Coping Method”

  1. This one paragraph captures so much in its few lines: “But, not everyone sings the praises of this coping method. The reality is that, while nostalgia can help us to understand our situation and feel hopeful, it is also a form of self-deception. We look back on the past for the happy times, ignoring the context of the situation we were in. We forget about the pain and difficulties in the past, using the rose-colored lens to feel secure in our future.”

    I can speak to the sentiment expressed above because, to a lesser extent, I have lived it. Being away from my country of birth and looking back at the life I had as “better” came crushing down on my first trip back home. The generations you talk about can’t really go back in time. The revivals they are experiencing have been doctored to fit today’s requirements. I actually envy that. Wish I could do a retro-forward fitting of my experiences.

    Thank you for this glimpse into one aspect of the Millennium Generation Realities.

  2. When our present moment is full of chaos and uncertainty, we look towards the past as a model for when things ‘worked’. Appealing to nostalgia is how Trump got not-popular-vote elected, but is also present whenever you and your friends talk about ‘hunter-gatherer’ times.

    It’s important to recognize that it is all an illusion we foster to make us feel better about a situation, but as we’ve seen, mistaking the glories of the past for our present ambition is like trying to hold onto water by squeezing tightly.

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