Zillennials Are Obsessed with Decade Daydreaming, But What Does Their Nostalgia Mean? We Asked an Expert

·8 min read

It’s so common, it’s officially a trend: A quick scan of TikTok, Instagram, even YouTube and you’ll find loads of Zillennials celebrating and recreating trends from eras gone by. But this isn’t your average trip down memory lane. In fact, given the age range of Gen Z, it’s nostalgia for decades—say, the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s—that they didn’t live through at all. Or, if they were old enough to be alive for it, as is the case with the ‘90s, let’s just say they weren’t watching shows like Friends (a major source of current social media inspo) in real time.

So where does this appreciation and fascination come from? In other words, why is a 19-year-old influencer fantasizing about the ‘80s—VHS tapes and all? Why are curtain bangs a la Farrah Fawcett going viral and accounts fantasizing about simpler times (i.e. pre-social media days when ‘90s kids would capture camcorder footage in the high school parking lot) blossoming into entire brands for Gen Z?

It could be escapism—modern times aren’t the easiest, pandemic and all—but those eras gone by also weren’t a picnic. They were rife with political, social and cultural change, same as now. No, according to the experts we talked to, decade daydreaming (i.e. imagining a world that nods to a past you didn’t live through) signifies something deeper for Zillennials. It’s about gaining an understanding of your self-identity at the exact moment you’re coming of age...all online.

Because, truth be told, every generation has borrowed from the past at one point or another. Zillennials just have a different medium in which to express their exploration and discovery.

Here’s why it can actually be pretty valuable long-term.

Yes, Zillennials’ Nostalgia Feels Extra, But Social Media Amplifies That

Zillennials—those born between 1993 and 1998—are the group that’s currently all over TikTok gushing about a past they didn’t live through. But Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor at Le Moyne College and a psychologist with an expertise in nostalgia, says that this is par for the course for anyone transitioning from an adolescent to a young adult. “Research has shown that this age group is especially likely to feel nostalgic,” she explains. “For teens and young adults, there is considerable conflict in abandoning childhood.”

The result is a deep dive into anything that will help them strengthen their sense of self. “There’s a direct association between nostalgia and identity exploration,” Dr. Batcho adds. “The tension between wanting to be ‘like everyone else’ to be accepted and ‘wanting to be different’ to be a unique independent person is experienced most intensely during this time.”

Cue the interest in past decades by teens whose expertise on social media is as second-nature as an ‘80s kid’s ability to stretch a phone cord from the kitchen to their bedroom. In fact, the internet gives them significantly more access to browse, if you will, and cherry-pick the trends and social and cultural moments that they connect with the most.

Take Andi, the influencer behind the TikTok account 70sn80sbabe: She grew up hearing her parents share tales from the ‘80s and play tunes from that era non-stop. When Stranger Things debuted, she became even more obsessed with that time period. Enter her TikTok brand, which has amassed almost 250,000 followers: “[The ‘80s] just seem so special and homey—all the colors! All the movies feel so happy and fun to watch.”

But there’s another reason Andi’s interest was piqued. “It feels like a time when people were very connected to each other before social media,” she explains. “Social media is good in moderation, but I love how people seem more connected back then. They talked on the phone and met up in person more vs. communicating through screens.”

This Is Where Historical Nostalgia Comes In

Per Dr. Batcho, trends from time periods in the past are appealing in part because they’re so different from what we’re experiencing now. “Historical nostalgia is a longing for the way things were in a prior time in history, even predating one’s birth,” she says. “This type of nostalgia is associated with a degree of dissatisfaction with current circumstances.” In the case of Andi, she’s a digital native (as is all of Gen Z). Experiencing life where the people around you are all head-down in various devices has been the norm. It’s only natural that you’d wonder about a time that pre-dates that.

Think of it this way: “On one level, Zillennials have been growing up in a time period with many material advantages, including technological, scientific, and medical advances,” says Dr. Batcho. “At the same time, progress has imposed new problems. Zillennials have experienced stress from social and interpersonal challenges. Many have grown up dealing with social-emotional issues in the ‘public eye’ of social media.”

No wonder they dub the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s as simpler times.

Remember, Zillennials Aren’t the Only Ones to Decade Daydream

For every generation, coming of age has spawned a desire to go back to a time you’ve never experienced, mainly because you can make it whatever you want it to be. Tess Brigham, a psychotherapist and Millennial expert, remembers this experience well: “When I was a kid, I remember how much we were obsessed with the ‘60s and ‘70s. There’s this feeling of fantasy and detachment. You look back on the great parts [of those eras] while discounting the stressors.”

She also says that it’s easy for those peering in (or peeking their social accounts) to forget how hard it is to be young. “Zillennials in particular have had a different experience—Millennials still have memories of dial-up and what life was like back then. Gen Z-ers entire world has been digital. I see it with my clients. There’s a love/hate relationship with social media."

This age is also primed for daydreaming. “I think it’s part escapism, but daydreaming is about the present future,” Brigham says. “This is the time when you’re building a fantasy of what adulthood is going to look like. I do think there is something about the ability to look into the past and create this fantasy: ‘What could life be like?’ I’m not happy with the present, the present doesn’t feel quite what I want it to be, so what if I create something that is completely my own?’”

For Joshy Soul, a bellbottom-loving musician who moonlights as a ‘70s-era roller skater (and also has a new album dropping soon), there’s a power in tapping into the influence of eras gone by as he shapes his modern-day brand. “As a musician, I think about the music that came from that time. But while we can hear the sounds, the tangible thing is the clothes. You can wear James Brown. You can wear Bob Dylan. There’s a power in respecting and paying homage to earlier eras because when I sit down at the piano wearing a ‘60s blazer with tie, I’m going to feel like Smokey Robinson or Nat King Cole. For me, it’s about tapping into how you want to feel or who you want to channel.”

Ultimately, It All Comes Down to Finding a Way to Express Yourself

With the internet at the fingertips of Gen Z, it’s more accessible than ever to find information about lifestyles, fashions and more of former eras. Social media also makes it easy to share interests with like-minded people. (Per Andi, “Most of my audience is people who have lived through that time, but a surprising number of followers are my age.”) Especially in a pandemic, where in-person connections are restricted, this can be a gateway to finding ways to belong, says Dr. Batcho.

“Research has shown that anxiety and loneliness increased during the pandemic. Nostalgia helps to counteract both,” she explains. “It’s comforting and offers the solace of temporary escapism, but more importantly, it can revive nostalgic memories of successful coping in the past.”

So, is there any harm in decade daydreaming? Both Dr. Batcho and Brigham agree: Not really. “There’s escapism and then there’s not being present in your life,” Brigham says. “There’s nothing wrong with being really into ‘80s fashion and talking about it online and immersing yourself as long as you’re still living your life. Are you still being present in your relationships? Creating goals for yourself today vs. living in the past? At the end of the day, all we have is what is happening now.”

Dr. Batcho adds: “Decade daydreaming can allow someone to ‘pause’ from feelings of things getting out of control. It can encourage a search for better ways to living or solving problems. It also enriches the quality of life by allowing an indulgence in fantasy and creative imagination.”

Bottom Line: Zillennials Won’t Be the Last Generation to Do It

As for the criticism that Zillennials are zeroing in on trends from eras with social and political issues they didn’t understand, Brigham says that cycle will likely continue for future generations coming of age. “It will be interesting 20 years from now to see if people start resurrecting masks and calling it ‘mask chic’ or something along those lines,” she says. “People will be like, ‘oh, that’s so cool,’ without really getting what it meant.”

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