The new nostalgia

Why are young adults getting teary-eyed for childhoods they have just left behind?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘We’ve got seven million members and it’s growing by 10,000 a day. People seem keen to “go back” to their school days, even if it is only over the internet during their lunchbreak.’

Jason Porter, co-founder of the British website Friends Reunited, was telling a roomful of green-eyed netheads about his stunning success amid the dotcom bust (1). Porter, his wife and two mates (‘web designers bored with working for big banks’) launched Friends Reunited from a bedroom in north London in 2001, as a site where people could trace old schoolmates. It has since become the fastest-growing website in Britain, getting 200million page views a month. ‘We’ve now bought an office’, says Porter. ‘And 17 servers.’

What’s the secret of his success? ‘Dunno’, he shrugs. ‘I think it fits in with the trend for revisiting our youths. There’s the School Disco thing, the I Love the 1980s TV programmes, all that stuff. Our website has benefited from people’s desire to relive innocent moments.’

Just a week earlier, on 13 July 2002, a friend of mine and 40,000 others relived some innocent moments at the open-air School Disco concert on Clapham Common in south London. School Disco is the London club night where twentysomething men and women dress up as schoolkids, and swing their pants to hits from the 1980s and 90s. The dj is ‘headmaster’, there’s a tuck shop where you can buy refreshments, and you’re encouraged to ‘smoke in the bogs’ rather than on the dancefloor (2).

On Clapham Common, School Disco ‘went live’ – with performances from The Human League, ABC, Limahl, and personal appearances by Zippy and Bungle from Rainbow and hand-puppets Sooty and Sweep. ‘It was like an afternoon of kids’ TV, synth music and schoolkid antics rolled into one’, claims my mate, who scarily says he ‘resurrected his mullet’ hairdo especially for the occasion. ‘We kinda lost ourselves in it all.’

If you missed School Disco you can always catch up with Sky TV’s Pop Years, which celebrates the music of the 1980s and 90s. Or you can buy the videos for BBC2’s I Love the 1970s, I Love the 1980s, I Love the 1990s, and Whatever Did the 1990s Do For Us? – all nostalgia-fests featuring young dial-a-mouths saying things like, ‘Remember when the A-Team built rocket launchers out of dustbins? Crazy!’.

I Love 1999 was broadcast in summer 2001 – suggesting that the time limit for getting nostalgic about something is now less than two years.

It isn’t only young Brits who are ‘reliving innocent moments’. In the USA, the Classmates website (their version of Friends Reunited) is hugely popular. According to a New York Times headline, ‘The 70s are so 90s. The 80s are the thing now’ – as ‘dance clubs devoted to 80s pop culture have been springing up from Chicago to Los Angeles to Brooklyn, all of them echoing with the humping sound of 80s synth-pop groups’ (3).

And Friends Reunited has started to colonise the school reunion sphere across Europe – ‘as fast as we can’, says Jason Porter. ‘Before Classmates does it.’ Soon there could be Friends Reunited, ‘the TV experience’. ‘Most reunion TV programmes are a bit rubbish’, Porter told me. ‘Those Cilla Black Surprise Surprise things are embarrassing. We’re looking to do something better – to get the Friends Reunited sentiment on to the box and into people’s homes.’

Why are so many young adults suffering from extreme short-term nostalgia, where they get teary-eyed about things that happened years, months or even weeks ago? Why are twentysomethings seeking to relive the youth that they have just left behind? According to one commentator, ‘Nostalgia is back – and it’s more popular than ever before. No longer the reserve of the old and infirm, we now live in a society where the young dream about when things were better, too.’

But there are big differences between the old nostalgia and the new – between today’s young who want to recapture their childhoods and yesterday’s old who wanted to return to the past.

In the past, it was generally only politicians and older generations who suffered from nostalgia – and the young often ridiculed them for it. Growing up in London in the 1980s and 90s (warning: nostalgic moment ahead), friends and I would moan about pensioners who banged on about how much better things were ‘during the war’, when at least people had respect for each other. ‘They only had one egg a month, no bananas and bombs from Germany, but at least they had respect’, we mocked.

According to one writer, nostalgia is ‘an evil similar and related to the onset of senility’ (4) – capturing how the disease of nostalgia (it really is seen as a disease by some, described by medical experts as a ‘severe and sometimes fatal form of melancholia’) was something that afflicted the old and potentially senile, those who felt out of touch with modern society.

And, of course, politicians. Who can forget former Tory prime minister John Major’s 1993 ‘Back to Basics’ campaign – where he called for a return ‘to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting responsibility for yourself and your family, and not shuffling it off on the state’. Major wanted a return to ‘previously held values of decency’, and got all nostalgic about a long-gone Britain where people were ‘resourceful and respectful’. His campaign only succeeded in exposing the Tories’ dearth of ideas for the present or the future.

The old nostalgia was most often delusional, dreaming of a rosy past that never really existed. As an Australian academic observes: ‘The problem with nostalgia is that it distorts one’s perception of both the present and the past. The past becomes a lost golden age where nothing went wrong and the present a cold wasteland without hope for the future.’ (5) When society suffered bouts of nostalgia it was usually a sign of disillusionment with the present and uncertainty about the future – causing people to reinvent the past.

But the old nostalgia was at least for real historical events (like the Blitz) or for a sense of community, however made up it was (like the Blitz Spirit). The new nostalgia, by contrast, is for things – items of clothing, fads, toys, objects – rather than for anything collective or community-based. Today’s youth get overexcited about yesterday’s fashion trends, hairstyles, music and films, rather than yesterday’s politics or attitude.

The new nostalgia is about reliving your childhood, rather than reshaping your adulthood – about reverting to a child-like state, rather than wishing that society was somehow different.

Consider BBC2’s I Love… series, in which twenty- and thirtysomething commentators recalled the sounds, images and things that defined their childhoods. Many slated the series for missing out huge chunks of history and for focusing on the petty instead of the political. When I Love 1984 devoted 10 minutes to discussing Transformer robots (a temporary toy fad) and no time at all to the miners’ strike (a turning-point political conflict), critics accused it of being lightweight and lame.

But that was the point. The aim of the programmes was not to be historical documents recalling important events for older generations, but to present quick nostalgic clips for younger generations whose memories of the 1970s, 80s and 90s are hazy and childish. That is why the programmes were filmed in a flashback style – they were about presenting childhood memories in the style of a childish memory.

The new nostalgia is about becoming a child again – hence the trend for dressing up in school uniforms, rediscovering the joy of leg warmers, and ‘resurrecting mullets’. As Bobby Sanchez, founder of School Disco, says about his club night: ‘It all started when I got fired from a top London club for playing Shakin’ Stevens. That night I drove to my old school in south London…. Could I go back and not have to deal with mortgages, girlfriend problems, 9 to 5?’

This isn’t nostalgia as ‘senility’, for those past their sell-by date and wishing to revert to the past. It looks more like the nostalgia of fear, where young people can’t quite let go of their childhoods and take comfort in the ‘innoncent moments’ of the past – even if it is only over the internet during their lunchbreaks or on a Saturday night out.

Is it just me, or does this make anyone else feel nostalgic for a time when young adults thought more about the future than the past?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Why I don’t love the 1980s, by Brendan O’Neill

Acquaintances rediscovered, by Neil Davenport

(1) See Friends Reunited

(2) See School Disco

(3) The 70s are so 90s. The 80s are the thing now, New York Times, 5 May 2002

(4) Fear of memory, by Tony Ryan, Info, July 1998

(5) Fear of memory, by Tony Ryan, Info, July 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today