Gen Z brought the '90s back because it feels impossible to grow up in today's economy
- The youth become nostalgic when the economy is struggling, seeking comfort and connection.
- It's why Gen Z is reviving indie sleaze, old-money prep, and Y2K trends of the '90s and early 2000s.
Nearly two years ago, when New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus in the US, I found solace on my couch watching TV. I checked in for new episodes of "The Bold Type." I devoured "Sex and the City" for the first time. I rewatched "Younger."
Living vicariously through the glamorous antics of 20- and 30-somethings in pre-pandemic New York was a comfort in a time when my favorite haunts shuttered their doors and nothing sparkled in Times Square but the billboards.
Uncertainty, anxiety, and loneliness triggered my nostalgia for a bustling, energized NYC, the Le Moyne College professor and psychologist Krystine Batcho told me. A researcher of nostalgia, Batcho explained that it's a common response when a troubled economy disrupts our lifestyles. Right now, it's most evident in the '90s and early-2000s trends that Gen Z is reviving.
"For many people, particularly young adults or those without a financial safety net, poor economic conditions raise fears of being able to meet financial obligations like rent or student-debt payments," Batcho said. "Nostalgia is a refuge, as people turn to the feelings of comfort, security, and love they enjoyed in their past."
It explains why so many of us texted our exes when the pandemic hit; why so many shows and movies got reboots, from "Gossip Girl" and "And Just Like That" to "Spiderman;" why companies and brands beefed up nostalgia marketing; and why all the things that are now cool in our pandemic world transport us back to a simpler time.
While I soaked up skyscrapers and taxi cabs on screen, Gen Zers (born from 1997 onward) watched "Friends" for the first time and thrifted '90s clothes. Their search for simpler times before adulthood — free of social-media trolling, Facetune, and remote school — led to the resurgence of trends that were hot long before the hardships of the pandemic or even the Great Recession.
We emerged from quarantine to a vaccinated world where cigarettes, wired headphones, preppy style, and Y2K fashion trends are in again. But youth nostalgia is not just a product of the existing economy. It can reshape it for years to come. Because 20-somethings typically wield the most influence in what consumers buy, they set the tone for a new economic and cultural chapter.
The youth's search for comfort
You don't have to be a certain age or gender to feel nostalgic during troubling times. But it can be more potent for those in a state of emerging adulthood — that 20-something limbo between adolescence and full maturity.
"It's a bittersweet time when you trade in childhood innocence for the independence of adulthood, not yet having experienced the more disappointing aspects of social behavior," Batcho said.
Gen Zers are adjusting to the realities of adult life. They hadn't yet experienced the full impact of economic hardship until the pandemic, when they bore the brunt of it. They were the hardest-hit generation in the labor force and, even a year into the pandemic, college grads were having the toughest time finding jobs. Plus, many were forced to attend school remotely and socialize almost exclusively through their phones.
As a coping mechanism, they reminisced about the '90s and early 2000s, when social media didn't yet exist, Michael Pankowski, the founder of the Gen Z marketing consulting firm Crimson Connection, told me.
"While we love the internet, the pandemic's grave effect on in-person interaction has made the digital world basically all we have," he said of his generation. "So we feel nostalgic for a time before the internet had become so omnipresent."
@oldloserinbrooklyn Trend forecast: indie sleaze revival #trendcycle #nostalgia #tumblrfashion #indiekid ♬ Sex and the City (Main Theme) - TV Sounds Unlimited
The ironic part is that it's through social media that people are making these nostalgic connections. Gen Z digitally bonded during quarantine, prompting the resurgence of these trends to take off on TikTok and making it easy to cycle through so many of them.
Consider the rise of indie sleaze, an eclectic early-2000s aesthetic influenced by the '70s and '80s and reminiscent of an American Apparel model headed to a dance club. Marked by Polaroid photos and party vibes, the style reflects the simplicity Gen Z seeks to escape from overstimulating technology and adult expenses. Returning to this more hedonistic, carefree style is also a rejection of the carefully curated millennial Instagram aesthetic that dominated the 2010s — think perfectly posed pics and lip filler.
In fact, Gen Z's nostalgia is a retaliation to the 2010s economy in which millennials came of age. The comeback of the old-money aesthetic — characterized by pearls, Ralph Lauren tennis skirts, and white tube socks — nods to an old-school aristocratic upper crust that reflects the economic boom times of the '90s. It's in contrast to flashy, Kardashian-style displays of wealth as well as the jeans-and-hoodie uniform of Silicon Valley. Bold Y2K colors, reminiscent of another pre-social-media era, are a spot of brightness in a world ravaged by climate change and a global health crisis.
The Gen Z experience is not unlike that of millennials, who graduated into the financial crisis of the Great Recession and spent years floating from job to job in a dismal labor market while juggling massive student debt and soaring living costs.
Coming of age during an economic decline and a technological revolution, millennials leaned into the simplicity of their childhood to cope. It explains the appeal of #TBT (Throwback Thursday), the persisting obsession with the Harry Potter books and movies of their childhood, and how millennial pink — a shade associated with youth and innocence — became so popular.
—Taryn Boyland (@Taryn_Boyland) December 6, 2021
Social media complicates nostalgia
Gen Z nostalgia perplexes Benjamin Ho, an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College and author of "Why Trust Matters: An Economist's Guide to the Ties that Bind Us."
"The way nostalgia usually works is it activates your memories from childhood, primarily the pop culture from your teenage years," he told me. "It seems too soon for Gen Z to be seeking the past."
Indeed, Gen Z is reminiscing about a time of which they have few or no memories. Ho said the fast pace of social media has splintered pop-culture trends so much that unlimited choices have made it harder for younger generations to find unifying cultural touchstones. So they turned to an earlier time when "Friends" and "TRL" were some of the only options for after-school TV, bonding a whole generation with common humor, fashion, and theme music.
@angemariano “Stop being poor!” #y2k #y2kaesthetic #2000s #y2kfashion #parishilton #fashionaesthetics #2000saesthetic #00s #00fashion #pinterestaesthetic #howto ♬ Vacation Bible School - Ayesha Erotica
Regardless of the medium, the common thread in youth nostalgia is that it fosters a sense of belonging. Nostalgia helps us strengthen relationships through shared experiences. That builds trust, Ho said.
He explained that we often unconsciously use others' consumption cues to make judgments about them; those with similar nostalgic consumption proclivities like music playlists and movie references likely share the same values. "We are evolutionarily designed to seek out those like-minded individuals as the people who can be trusted," he said.
It makes sense then, he added, that younger generations would turn to nostalgia during times of economic and social upheaval.
Pankowski said because the past is complete, it feels simple and structured compared with the uncertain times of the pandemic. It's what the millennium provided Gen Z, and what NYC-based TV shows gave me. As he put it, "Thinking about it brings a calmness that can be hard to find in the chaotic present."
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