Why Nostalgia Seems More Prominent Now
Nostalgia seems a more prominent phenomenon now than ever. Crucially, it might be coming on quicker, too.
History seems like it’s been speeding up for years now; whether from digital technology or the pandemic or whatever other insidious single driving force, people have been increasingly observing a perceived acceleration in socio-historical events. Even on the surface, it isn’t as sensationalist as one may initially think. There must be, of course, a multiplicity of factors at play, as the Internet and social media have made communication instant and culture instantly accessible, and many get the feeling that the first COVID lockdowns suddenly constituted a new era we’re only now just starting to make sense of. Young people, and only half-jokingly, yearn for 2016 as the last good year before the world went insane. But what actually lies at the bottom of this quickly materializing social trend?
Certainly, some factors are obvious deductions; COVID and its consequences have torn up a good portion of our collective social lives, and the degradation of our political process has made yearning for a bygone era popular again. The scale of the online factor, though — the scale of the social ramifications of the Age of Information — is hard to exaggerate. For one, the Internet has allowed young people to pick and choose independently what aesthetics from what eras they like. Georgetown University professor Marlene Morris Towns says:
“this generation is far more in touch with previous generations’ styles and tastes, and there’s elements of a greater sense of discovery.”
Freedom to choose plays a part in the explosion of nostalgia as a medium of self-expression. The regular nostalgic trends that defined earlier generations, too, are disappearing; the cycle of styles becoming cool, uncool, and cool again has been broken by awareness of it and its alternatives.
People have heard of the supposed 20-year social cycle of nostalgia for a while now, and it’s embedded in the public consciousness whether it’s true or not. Nostalgia has only become a recognized and studied phenomenon in the past few hundred years. Only within the past few decades did it turn into this universal experience ingrained in our popular media. With these decades of study came results — like social trends’ supposed 20-year life cycles — but they also brought a level of public understanding of nostalgia so precise it broke the very trends discovered. Some social phenomena only work when allowed to work unconsciously, and once they come into the limelight, they’re consciously questioned, altered or rejected to the point that they stop holding up entirely. Perhaps, partly, nostalgia’s popularity is due to sociology’s interest in it.
All of these themes and factors have contributed, in the last two or three years especially, to our regular nostalgic waves falling apart into networks of online nostalgia-core subcultures. Social unity, even in unifying trends and waves of popularity, has fallen apart. People most obsessed with nostalgia — and historical, escapist nostalgia in particular — will often jump from yearning for one era to another on short notice. Many even dramatically shorten the timeframe of their nostalgia to focus on more recent events. Deep Focus’ Jamie Gutfreund says:
“we call this early-onset nostalgia; where there is such an information overload that it has compressed their sense of time. Initially #tbt started off as a throwback to your childhood, but now, it’s throwback to last week.”
Everyone wants an escape, but no one knows where to escape to.
The theory is this; people aren’t developing intense nostalgia en masse for a love of history, but for a realization that modernity isn’t working. It’s another symptom of the age of anxiety. It’s the same reason why people have been putting so much more time and money into pets, home décor and comfort foods. Mass society is being thrown kicking and screaming into year three of COVID, and at least since 2008, it’s been kicking and screaming to escape the exponential chaos of late industrial history. The corresponding need for comfort has fueled nostalgia. Psychology tells us that nostalgia becomes most popular in hard or uncertain times; it’s no surprise that we’re having this conversation today.
Truthfully, then, much of the nostalgic noise sounds like it can be boiled down to an alerted public intuition for destruction. It’s the unappealing nature of today and not the lust for yesterday, that seems to be fueling this nostalgic surge. People are looking back only in the wake of a refusal to look at a wasted world laid before them. Nostalgia, in and of itself, maybe a harmless or even beneficial phenomenon. Nonetheless, the intense and desperate nostalgia of today could be very accurately described as a contributing voice to the mass scream of a dying society.
The past cannot be the ultimate answer. It can only give us hints on our path to the answer. And we can only form a productive relationship with the past if we recognize that we’ll never be returning to it. Essentially, the increasingly visible nostalgia of the past few years is just another voice in the confusing scream of a societal death spiral, and if we want to engage productively with it, we must recognize it for what it is; a warning sign.