Features, Writing Archive

The Complex Feelings of “Millennial Nostalgia”

For Christmas, I bought my twin sons an antique Fisher Price toy boat, a popular toy in the 1980s. I saw the boat while walking through an antique store last month. It caught my eye because my grandparents used to have one in their summer cottage that I used to play with as a child.

As someone who enjoys visiting antique stores, I often see people my age who are part of the millennial generation looking at vintage toys from the 1980s and 1990s, which can bring up memories and nostalgia for them.

The concept of “Millennial Nostalgia” is something that I suspect will be talked about even more as those from my generation begin to grow old. Instagram already has many social media influencers who display old photos and videos of hairstyles, clothing, and television shows from the 1990s, which spark feelings of shared nostalgia and conversation amongst millennials.

Millennials are a unique generation defined by shared cultural experiences. From the rise of boy bands such as Backstreet Boys and superstar female singers such as Britney Spears to the era of dial-up Internet and watching MTV’s Total Request Live after school, the 1990s were a unique time to grow up. Yet despite the popular fads of baggy jeans, bowl cuts, and bright-colored windbreaker pants, there is something deeper behind the interest in the fashion, entertainment, and culture of the 1990s, which many from my generation long to experience again.

Those of us who grew up in the 1990s are the last generation to remember life before the Internet. We remember how quickly it took off when it was introduced. From the sound of dial-up Internet to the memories of chatting with friends on AOL Instant Messenger, followed by the creation of smartphones and social media networks, millennials witnessed the technological evolution from the beginning.

However, since this technology has been introduced, it has also quickly led to superficial relationships and a distorted sense of social validation—specifically since the introduction of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. And for us millennials who have been on social media ever since it was created, we have struggled with feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression because of it. In our twenties, it was all about posting photos of college parties and being at different social activities to appear we were popular. And now, with us in our late thirties and early forties, it is all about posting photos of our children and how beautiful our homes are to appear that we have the perfect life and family.

Another factor to consider regarding why millennials may yearn for a connection to the 1990s is that our world seemed safer. But as we got older, we remember beginning to feel unsafe in our classrooms following the Columbine shootings and a few years later September 11th caused us to feel unsafe just living anywhere in America. By 2003, America was involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many of our classmates ended up on the front lines. By 2008, our world was plunged into a great recession, causing many millennials to struggle to find jobs after college while overwhelmed by college debt. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation, and political instability in the United States have stressed us, causing us to age physically faster than previous generations. All this is to say that our generation had a rough transition into adulthood, which can contribute to why we long for the past.

There is nothing wrong with millennials watching old re-runs of their favorite 90s TV shows and collecting old video game sets such as Nintendo and Sega Genesis. But it is essential to remind ourselves nostalgia itself can cause us to have a subjective view of the past and hold us back from living in the present.

One of the things we may hear Baby Boomers say to us is that the 1950s or 1960s were the “good old days.” Many of our parents may have felt life was good back then, but it was not for many. With segregation, racism, inequality, and poverty very prevalent in America during that era, along with a divisive war in Vietnam that claimed thousands of lives, the 1950s and 1960s were not exactly “good” for everyone. And while Baby Boomers often think millennials have it easy, the reality is, in some ways, they had it easier transitioning into adulthood because paying for college, purchasing a home, and saving for retirement was much easier for them as adults than for us. And those who are part of “Generation Z” or “Generation Alpha,” with the latter being the generation my sons will identify with, may have more challenges than we did.

While it’s okay for us millennials to feel our childhood in the 1990s was good, we must remember that many millennials who grew up in the 1990s did not have the same experience. I have several friends who had rough upbringings in the 1990s marked by growing up in poverty, experiencing racism, being abused by parents or bullied at school, and other horrible childhood experiences. Sometimes, the simplest reminders of the 1990s can trigger painful memories for them and why they may decide to disassociate from going to their high school reunions or never return to their hometowns after they moved away.

The second aspect to keep in mind is that we can still form connections and find the community that we cherished as children in the 1990s without using technology just as we used to do as children. Much like when we were kids, we can introduce ourselves to our neighbors, and instead of inviting them to play basketball in the street, we can invite them to have cookouts in our backyards. Additionally, we can incorporate the activities we used to do as children (i.e., skating, sports, writing, drawing, etc.) into our lives as adults. Most of all, despite social media and technology being all around us, we have the power to restrict it to a particular place and time, much how it used to be when our computers in the 1990s were restricted to our desktops in our house and not on our phones in our pockets.

While millennial nostalgia is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon shaped by technological evolution, shared cultural experiences of growing up in the 1990s, and a desire for a simpler, more authentic life, it is possible to relive and re-discover the aspects of our childhood and re-incorporate them back into our lives and to allow us even as middle-aged adults to feel like a kid again.