Is Nostalgia Holding Us Back From...The Future?

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slide1Illustrated By Sydney Hass.


It's hard to utter the word nostalgia without being transported to a time when My So-Called Life still aired; gelatinous fruit snacks were close enough to the real, fiber-rich thing; and after-school was a bona-fide time of day.

But, the recent '90s revival isn't actually a return to those sunnier, responsibility-free days (for some of us, anyway). It just means that another generation — this time, millennials — has arrived at adulthood en masse and is jumping at the first real chance to get their good ol' days on. It happens, just like '80s nostalgia preceded it and '00s nostalgia will follow. But, there is another type of nostalgia that's infiltrated society much more deeply, and it's more systemic than the most infectious #TBT could ever dream of being. And, that's our decade-long obsession with the simple, the handcrafted, and the well-worn — those less polished, more imperfect things that take our search for something real and say, "Found it."

This is not the world we awaited on the much-hyped eve of Y2K, but it is the one we inherited. Instead of making dinner with the press of a button à la The Jetsons (though 3-D printers are making BIG promises), we plant gardens, forage for food (or read about people who do), and make everything from scratch. We eschew the sleek and shiny future the mid- and late-20th century dreamed up in favor of unfinished wood, flea-market finds, and DIY. And, at this point, we really can't dismiss it all as ephemeral (not that we'd want to). It's burrowed so deep in our collective consciousness that it's embedded in our current standard of good taste.

"We have fallen out of love with the future," confirmed futurist and author Richard Watson, though any Instagram filter could have told us that. The real question we put to him was why. Why, if the future is now, is the zeitgeist in retrograde? There's the whole economy thing — nostalgia thrives on financial volatility — and the environmental need to reduce, reuse, recycle (we weren't brainwashed or anything), but we suspect there are more factors at play, and Watson agrees.

"The yearning for the past is deeply connected to uncertainty surrounding the future," he said. "We are looking for something that's less complex, warmer, and more certain... It's primarily caused by too much change — largely technological but also geopolitical along with a breakdown in trust [in institutions] and the fact that work and families are less stable."
slide2Illustrated By Sydney Hass.


Ann Mack, director of trend spotting at JWT, seconded Watson's tech-weary theory, saying that those perfectly imperfect things we covet — the artisan, the handcrafted, and the rustic — are a counter to tech's smooth and shiny surfaces. "Consumers have been seeking authenticity from products and services, and nostalgia feels more authentic. It's the imperfect that feels especially genuine," she said. "Nostalgia fills the emotional void we've been feeling. People are doing things because they want to embrace that feeling. They're raging against the machine."

"Rage against the machine" is one of JWT's aptly named trends of 2014. Mack notes that this latest round of uproar is different from society's earlier general rejections of whatever was new — be it the telephone, automobile, or television. The newest bout is conjuring up a question more deep-seated, far-reaching, and profound: Is tech dehumanizing? And, asking it are not simply Luddites, contrarians, and older people set in their 20th-century ways. Nope. "People of all ages," she said, "are simultaneously embracing technology and rejecting it...They're questioning its siren call."

In fact, JWT Intelligence found that 62% of millennials (ages 18 to 35) say they fear technology is taking over their lives. That's surprising on its own, but it's even more eye-opening when you compare it to older adults: 65% of Gen Xers and 66% of baby boomers agree. With only 3% and 4% increases, respectively, these generational differences are statistically insignificant, creating a serious real-world takeaway: People of all ages are looking to reconnect on a more personal level. And, guess what's great for that? You know it.

Nostalgia is a coping mechanism. Studies have found it has a mind-body connection that cannot only counteract loneliness, boredom, anxiety, and depression, but also help us make sense of our past and feel more hopeful about the future. Even if we romanticize yesteryear (and we usually do), nostalgia can create a mental, and even physical, fortress. It allows us to feel more optimistic, and it can literally warm us on a cold day.
slide3Illustrated By Sydney Hass.


And, though children as young as 7 will put on its rose-colored glasses, it's more prevalent among young adults than middle-agers, who have no time for its wistful ways. So, much like 20-somethings gaze back right when life hurls them forward, we've hit a moment where change is happening at Hyperloop speed, and we're taking a collective breath and looking to the past to learn how to live in the present.

While this may seem like an unexpected twist in the early-21st-century story, it's hardly a surprise to those in the business of the future. Richard Watson directed us to the 1970 book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler, which argues that too much change in too short of time brings mental stress. Though the bleak picture Toffler painted has not entirely materialized, many of his predictions (the Internet in all its glory, information overload, instant celebrities, antidepressants, a knowledge-based workforce) arrived on schedule. In fact, his so-called "future shock" sounds a lot like the missing ingredient we were looking for in our latest nostalgic milieu.

It's true we'll always be nostalgic about something, but what's happening right now is obviously different. And, this national mood doesn't show any sign of lifting. Sure, at some point, the pendulum will swing back, and the future will come back into intoxicating focus. But, for that to happen, we're thinking there need to be at least two booms: baby and economic. Seem unlikely? Well, before you start stockpiling mason jars, listen up: There are legit claims that both are afoot. The U.N. predicts a boom of the tiny-human variety in numbers that will best post-World War II rates — at least among women in the highest income brackets of developed countries. And, Charles Morris, the former banker who sounded the silent alarm on the 2008 crash, says he sees the dollar bill making a major, long-lasting comeback.

But, even if all this goes as predicted, it will be years (possibly decades) before we see its effect. So, for now, settle in. Hit the flea market. Maybe even make something with your hands? Because everything old will continue to be great for at least the foreseeable future.