When a generation enters adulthood, they begin to look back at the twisted world they were brought up in and a) place blame on their elders and b) congratulate themselves for having survived it all. With the Baby Boomers, it is an easy story to follow. Having been born and raised in the pre-racial, post-war suburban decadence of the 1950s, they were shocked into submission when the world around them began to feature dead presidents, dead kids, and dead rock stars and responded by burning bras, burning joints, and burning draft cards.
Our generation, cursed with the boy-bandish name “The Millennials,” is feeling a similar cultural drift. The 1990s were largely the same as the 1950s if you replace television with the internet, Elvis with Tupac, and Eisenhower’s “I-Killed-Nazis” swagger with Clinton’s “I-Eat-A-Big-Mac-After-Every-Jog” swagger. Both were eras of mass economic surplus, extensive consumerism, and suffered great tragedy immediately thereafter. I once spoke with a professor about how crises define generations, and she pointed out that, while many tears were shed for JFK and the Twin Towers, they weren’t genuine nationwide crises like World War II, the Great Depression or the Civil War. They didn’t actually take anything away from most of our daily lives except a vague sort of national contentment and invincibility. However, both the assassination of John F. Kennedy and 9/11 were followed by periods characterized by failed leadership, disastrous wars, and economic hardships. This has allowed both generations to have a “before” and “after” division between the time their life was simple and joyful and the time their life became one of unemployment and war. It provides for that most potent of abusive thought processes, “nostalgia.”
Hopefully I don’t need to describe to a Thought Catalog reader that Millennials are overly nostalgic for the 1990s. Our biggest problems were keeping our President’s pants on and keeping Seinfeld on the air; of course we’re nostalgic for those times. It was before the Rugrats were All Growed Up, before we knew Barry Bonds’ head was not just magically getting thicker, and before Justin Timberlake had talent. But one thing that tends to be missing from all these lists of Things You Loved Back Then is this: you were a child. Of course you loved a time when you had no responsibilities other than keeping your room clean and not calling your mom a bitch. Those things were so much easier than keeping your credit clean and not calling your landlady a bitch.
Baby Boomers (though they’ll never admit it) had a similar problem throughout the 1960s and 70s. Whether it was Happy Days or Grease or Sha-Na-Na, 1950s retroism was quite popular, what with the oil embargos and the Agent Orange and the lying shit of a President. The organizers of the Woodstock festival nearly booked Roy Rogers to follow a young trio named The Jimi Hendrix Experience because, as organizer Michael Lang put it, “I grew up listening to Roy Rogers sing ‘Happy Trails’ on the radio and I thought, ‘What a perfect way to end the show.'” Even Elvis Presley, the nemesis of 1950s tight-fisted sexuality, had a comeback in this era. How different is that from New Kids On The Block and The Backstreet Boys selling out stadiums today or Nickelodeon running Golden Age 90s reruns during Nick-at-Nite? Through the lens of their popular culture, it becomes obvious that Boomers suffered the same malaise that real-world problems, both on the front page and in their checkbook, present to us today.
It’s not hard to realize why an inner fear of growing up within both generations results in nostalgia. We are supposed to be the adults now. Do away with childish things, as it were. It is not acceptable for us to pretend this is not a true fact of our lives, but it is acceptable to surround yourself in the culture of your childhood in an effort to cling to the last string of youth within you. What helps both Boomers and Millennials out is the historical narrative that enforces it. The paths that lead from peaceful and economic boom times to a national (and, more importantly, nationally-televised) tragedy to an era of hardship is akin to the typical pathway of growing up. Childhood is a time of little worry (whether we realized it then or not) and having to do for ourselves what everyone has usually done for us puts fear in our hearts, as much fear as an assassination or terrorist attack. The parallel nostalgia of both generations is undercut by a general mood that we had happiness — maybe even deserved it — and it was taken away from us.
However, whereas Baby Boomers had to wait for greenlighted Hollywood projects to entertain their longing for a bygone era, we have an unlimited source of childhood memories. Want several hours of nothing but 90s commercials? Here you go. Want nearly every NES game? Enjoy. Stuck wondering why you inexplicably link the Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner” with the TV show I Dream of Jeannie? You’re welcome. Even Facebook is becoming littered with personal photos from our childhoods, causing furious tagging and de-tagging fights. This is why, along with four decades of academic study, we are hearing the term “prolonged adolescence” more than the Boomers ever did. We are fully integrating our pasts into our present lives, even at a time when we should be maturing past these things. Don’t let me be misunderstood; my name is Ben Branstetter, and I am also a nostalgia junkie (in writing this past paragraph, I ended up playing Dr. Mario and Casino Kid 2 for an hour only to remember I was actually writing something or other). And no, I’m not suggesting all Millennials are spending all their money on single cans of Surge instead of paying off debt. But relying on your past for happiness creates a strong bitterness within a person, one that depends on a delusion: childhood never dies.
Our brains are hardwired, out of a need for self-protection, to glorify the past. But we were given, by families who loved us and media companies who loved our parents’ wallets, happiness with little work asked for in response. And a strong part of adulthood is learning happiness must be fought for. If you want personal joy, you must, Maslow-style, master your personal responsibilities first. This is what Boomers learned after the retro-craze of the 70s (leading into a self-hate relationship with disco, variety shows, and Ronald Reagan). The birth of the “Yuppie” and rebirth of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (the intellectual backbone of the Conservative Revolution) were merely the Boomers overcompensating for the years they spent leading the sort of counterculture lives many hipsters aim to lead today. Look no further than the complaints around Occupy Wall Street or the Ron Paul Revolution to see that a similar backlash has already begun. In the same way we, as a nation, took for granted the joyous peace and economy of the 1990s, we, as the adults in the room now, are not entitled to the liberation of child-like mentalities.