Why Do Younger Generations Feel Nostalgic for a Past They Never Experienced?

Turning to nostalgia is a good sign of hope for things to come, but we should also take the time to consider what this might mean about the direction we're headed.

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Vecna. Hopper. Eleven. Eggo Waffles. With a record-breaking 286.7 million hours streamed, most people understand the meaning of those seemingly random words from Stranger Things, a popular Netflix series and '80s-era blast from the past. But what struck me most about this show's success was how younger viewers connected with it.

Nostalgic brands from the '80s are making a comeback with the help of an unexpected group of supporters: millennials from the tail end of the decade and Generation Z who never experienced that era at all. The trend goes beyond TV shows like Stranger Things or Riverdale. Retro video games from the era are still popular and arcades are even blending them with NFT culture. Fashionistas are pairing neon with denim and wild '80s hair, including mullets, perms and banana hair clips.

These younger generations' priorities are changing and businesses need to take note. Amidst pandemics and resignation, war and recession, nostalgia has the power to keep people engaged. But I believe this wistful turn and longing for the past may signal how companies are out of step with what consumers really care about. While businesses should be thinking about how to play into that nostalgia with their consumers and employees, they should do so with an eye toward getting them to trust in a forward path.

During crises, younger generations long for simpler times.

The dip back into nostalgia has come and gone before, but I'm more interested in what might be causing it now. Conditions like uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness, meaninglessness, and even boredom can trigger a human need for nostalgia. Millennials entered a financial crisis in 2010, with a bleak labor market, crippling student debt, and rising living costs. Then came the 2020 pandemic, home lockdowns, and a general lifestyle upheaval that hit Generation Z and millennials the hardest. These younger groups are also those with the biggest sway over consumer trends.

Younger generations are seeking brands that harken back to simpler times. After the pandemic, people found nostalgia restorative. By engaging in nostalgia, individuals dealing with stress feel greater security and create deeper connections. At the same time, brands should consider this: If consumers are turning to a time long lost for joy, are we giving them what they need?

Looking back can help slow things down.

Staying on top of consumer trends can be both a marathon and a sprint, but when nostalgia is nixed, it can signal that brands are trying to take on too much, too fast. Taking a step back into an earlier time can help bring calmness to a chaotic present, making it easier to focus on problems that seem overwhelming. With overstimulating technology and increasingly stressful responsibilities in a world of climate change and global health crises—nostalgia can be an important psychological resource for consumers to access.

After Covid-19, people had time to reflect on what was truly important, from more quality time with their family to better health and new hobbies. There was overall a greater emphasis and value attached to free time. People's values also shifted around in-person interactions as businesses went increasingly remote. Some people thrived in the new environment, but others relied more heavily on that social interaction. Past providing only nostalgic outlets, companies must ensure they know what their customers and employees want and need to thrive on a deeper level and to constantly reevaluate that knowledge to keep pace. The key is to exude the same dependability and support as those the nostalgic outlets offer.

Reinvention isn't always necessary.

As a mother watching Stranger Things, the '80s nostalgia was interesting, but I mostly related to developing interpersonal relationships. Sure, weird things happened along the way, but how these kids came together as a group was more important. Even if consumers trend away from nostalgia, that core sentiment will still stand out to viewers five, 10 or 20 years from now.

Brands are always trying to reinvent themselves through new and unique marketing strategies, and for some, going nostalgic may be the fresh start they need. At the same time, a total '80s rebrand may be overthinking it. Businesses may want to consider keeping things simple and reassessing their priorities. Consider taking your company back to its roots. Talk about its history and culture. Open a dialogue with your team and customers and make sure what they want and what you offer are aligned.

Nostalgia makes our minds wander to happier times. When I hear '60s music, it really harkens me back to the positive experiences of my youth. If brands can bring that feeling to a product or service, they can take advantage of this current longing. Millennials and Gen Z turning to nostalgia is a good sign of hope for things to come, but we should also take the time to consider what this might mean about the direction we're headed and what we can do to motivate nostalgic consumers moving forward.

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