YoI’m Gen Z and I don’t understand what older generations want from us. We’re either the laziest generation ever, and need to learn how to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, or objects of pity as we soak ourselves in nostalgia for the “simpler times” they enjoyed, staring down a wasteland of a future. Oh, and we’re also way too PC.
For whatever reason, it’s the pity more than the scorn that’s gotten my back up of late. With Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill back on our airwaves and the mainstreaming of the mullet, the amount of hot takes on young people’s apparent infatuation with the past is peaking.
take this article by Business Insider explaining that “The youth become nostalgic when the economy is struggling, seeking comfort and connection”. Or the conclusion of two Australian academics that young consumers are “immers”[ing] themselves in eighties pop culture to cope with their wistful affection and sentimental longing for this period of the past” and “to pretend they were really a part of that historical period”.
“And you’re not even pretending well!” those who lived through the era cry, screaming factual inaccuracy.
But maybe that’s the point. We’re not trying to replicate or relive the past. We’re trying to update it – even rewrite it. We’re saying I’ll take your fashion and raise you female empowerment, gender fluidity, and people on catwalks and TV that actually look like us. The Gen Z trend is all about cultural reinterpretation as a form of empowerment.
Nostalgia (which translates to homecoming pain, a condition once diagnosed to homesick mercenary soldiers) is about a sense of loss or longing. For young people, the current trend is about what we can gain or even redeem from the past, not a mourning for what’s lost. As a generation defined by our activism and progressive beliefs, the concept of craving for “simpler times” just doesn’t compute. How can we be the most likely generation to identify as LGBTQIA+ and advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, but at the same time, want to go back to the 90s when same-sex marriage was illegal and Ellen was being booted from the air for being “too gay”?
In fact, what we’re doing feels closer to taking what our parents made and sticking a knife in to see what rings true and what bleeds out, or reclaiming aspects of cultural history that weren’t previously accessible to everyone.
One example that’s been ripe for millennial backlash is the return of low-rise jeans. And I totally understand the trauma. As some have pointed outit was a fashion trend about showing off your flat-as-a-tack stomach at a time when Marissa Cooper was the ideal.
But that’s exactly what many Gen Z proponents of the low-rise comeback tour are trying to subvert. Take this TikTok by 19-year-old Spencer Barbosa responding to the comment that “only people with flat tummies can wear low rises”. In the caption for the video, she responds “clothes don’t have a body type”. And it’s true. Societies have a body type, not clothes. By putting items once limited to cis ultra-skinny white women on a wider range of bodies, Gen Z is trying to expand that body type definition.
At the same time, high-waist jeans are far from being “out.” They’re still being seen everywhere from the street to Fashion Week runways. It’s all about choice now – what is comfortable and what suits your personal style – rather than smooshing yourself into one common trend. It’s a push towards democratizing fashion. Our own friends are just as much personal trendsetters as celebrities, since platforms like Instagram gave us all a space to develop our own aesthetic portfolios.
This has created a generational view of fashion that is much more inclusive and less cut-throat. I can’t really think of many trends that are actually “out” – other than fur and, increasingly, hopefully, fast fashion. It’s also less fixed. We’re donning a different look every day – or even multiple looks mashed up at once – rather than committing to one for a period of our lives.
The so-called “nostalgia” trend can also be understood in the broader context of Gen Z’s love of mimicry and intertextual references. Take the popularity of memes and, more recently, TikTok. It’s all about recreating your own version of something. Then your own version of a version of something. The references are often so many layers deep that I’m not surprised those not up-to-the-minute with digital culture are mistaking their mockery for homage.
Finally, the nostalgia narrative seems to leave out the fact that plenty of trends being reanimated for the 2020s are actually common sense given the moment we’re in. We’re wearing 2000s get-up because we want to be sustainable by op-shopping (and apparently a lot of low-rise jeans were up for resell). We’re using flip phones because we’re trying to be more mindful of our technology use. We’re buying records because more money goes to the artists rather than, say, Spotify. And mullets are back and in the mainstream, not because we all wish we lived in the 80s, but because we’re generally shifting as a society towards more genderless style.
So to older generations who coo that we must be nostalgic for a pre-pandemic, pre-climate change, pre-housing crisis world (themselves indulging in pity porn while doing nothing to actually absolve the crises they’ve bequeathed to us) I respond : the kids are alright. On balance, I feel lucky about the age I’ve grown up in. I honestly couldn’t imagine anything worse than coming of age at a time when heroin chic was all the rage and women on screen were lucky if they had a name let alone a personality. Far from a practice in escapism, our interest in the past is much more about the lessons that can be gleaned from it – both the good and the bad – as well as perhaps a more morbid recognition of the things that have not progressed as much as they should have.
Let’s save our condescension for those who talk earnestly about “the good old days”. More often than not, these are the kinds of people who are genuinely Nostalgic for eras where men were macho, women subservient and milk tasted like real milk.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism