Generations: We're All Nostalgic!

Let's review: First a Chinese 20-something wrote that members of his generation were strangely disaffected and nostalgic -- surprising in a sense, since everything was supposed to be better in today's China than in their childhood years.

Then a couple of young and youngish Americans said: Hey, we're nostalgic too!

Today we hear from people who are young at heart but who are "mature" in earthly years. They say: there's nostalgia enough for all. First:

>>Re: your recent posts on longing for a simpler, past time, I agree with your reader the phenomenon is both universal and long-standing.  What has always interested me is the way our society seems to support overlapping waves of nostalgia at given times.  This first struck me when looking back at my own childhood in the early 70s, when you could find - in increasing distance - nostalgia for the late 50's - American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha Na Na, the late 20s early 30s - The Sting, The Great Gatsby, neo Art Deco and classic design - just take a look at the early 70s Cadillacs and Buicks, especially the "boat tail" Riviera, and the "Gay 90s" - the Victorian craze, granny dresses and glasses, wicker, ice-cream parlor chairs.  

My suspicion is that each generation fuels its own personal nostalgia: College and post-collegiate kids who look fondly back to what the dimly remember as the culture of their youth (as a late 80s undergraduate I was really in to early 70s pop music); middle-agers looking back to their youth; and the elderly doing the same.  

What's most interesting is these are not mutually-exclusive events, with different generations actively sampling from each wave.  As a child I remembered none of these times, but I watched Happy Days and The Waltons and loved going to the Gay 90s Dairy Queen in Ligonier, Pa.

The events of last week also brought home your reader's comments regarding nuclear holocaust; it was certainly a constant theme growing up, and I remember the perverse pride me and my fellow Pittsburghers took in the alleged fact that our city was No. 3 on the Soviet's list after Washington and New York - because of the mills, of course.  But what really hit me watching the young adults celebrating Bin Laden's death Sunday night was that a U.S. at war on terror was the only situation they've known, and what a different perspective that is from mine, and yours.<<

From someone a little older:

>>I was born during the Eisenhower administration, grew up in the sixties and came of age in the seventies.  I, and the people I know in my age group, are not nostalgic for our childhoods.  In my memory, elementary and junior high years are grey, amorphous and it's surprisingly difficult to look back and find a touchstone memory.  Lost in Space, Batman and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on teevee, along with my mom watching Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin while she ironed, perhaps, but nothing with the emotional resonance my younger friends have for Schoolhouse Rock and the like.

Rather, my nostalgia is reserved for the years that came immediately afterwards, my young adulthood in the seventies and very early eighties, when everybody thought drugs were a harmless diversion and sex was something everybody did with everybody, and the very idea that it might kill you had never been considered.  My memories of the Iranian revolution, for example, are primarily those of standing on a disco dance floor hoisting a cocktail and shouting "Down with the Shah!", as if we had any idea what it meant.

I never really thought about it before these posts of yours, but upon initial consideration it seems that perhaps each succeeding generation embraces the nostalgia from an earlier part of their life, that the cultural touchstones that did the most effective, compelling imprinting upon their/our psyches happens increasingly earlier.  Certainly part of this is easily attributed to the increasing pervasiveness of the media and the media delivery infrastructure.  My generation was the last one intimately dependent upon books.

Television was huge, but it wasn't capable of having the impact it had on the children of the eighties and nineties.  The first video games served double duty as tables in bars (pacman and space invaders allowed me to discover I lacked the digital coordination to play video games, and has guided me to avoid them ever since), but they have been an integral part of each succeeding generation.  For that matter, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, but I don't think anybody I know who's younger than me had that experience.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what it means, or even if it means anything important at all.  The things we embraced as children changed as the way we consumed them changed.  The media becomes easier to consume, and is consequently consumed by younger people. The barriers are lower, but in many cases the quality is lower too.  There's an effective lower threshold to this process, one we have likely already reached.  And with all the interactive and social media on the web, the written word hasn't become obsolete, it's just become shorter, from 'tl;dr' to 140 characters.  I worry about this process, but then I remember that the people who have been the most destructive to our basic values, from GW Bush and Dick Cheney to Benjamin Netanyahu to so many others come from my generation or the one that preceded it.  So I look at the world and, specifically, America today and I think, to be anything but hopeful about the generations to come would represent a substantial hubris.<<

Two more after the jump.

From more or less the same period (nearing my own vintage):

"Practically everyone of my age and 5-7 years older grew up in mortal terror of nuclear war (we were old enough to have seen The Day After when it was broadcast in primetime, for instance)"

I'd also look at the flip side of this.  I think it was John Perry Barlow who tweeted recently about his generation never thinking they'd still be around by now because of nuclear holocaust, [or, in other versions] with environmental disaster, or population bomb, or any number of disaster scenarios thrown in for good measure.

This is what I think the main appeal of the Peak-Oil-as-disaster-scenario is based on... "I was promised a world-ending disaster as a kid, damnit, and here I am 50-(or 60-)mumble, and the world hasn't had one yet!"  Think of it as the pessimistic mirror of the perennial favorite, "What happened to our jet packs? They promised!"<<

And finally, from a reader in California:

>>My 50th (!) college class reunion is coming up in September, and I began to realize that my fondness for memories of that time are greatly influenced by a fondness for being young. Of course, much has changed, but in many ways for the better---save one's own physical self. So one must try to disentangle the nostalgia for being young from the nostalgia for the time period itself.<<

As old fart graduates of junior-high Latin would put it, nihil novi sub sole.Ooops, bonus -- one more, to the same effect:

>>I guess it would be an overgeneralization to say that generalizations about generations are always a fallacy. Conditions of life change, and so behavior changes, and national character changes over time, and sometimes those changes can be more or less pegged to causes.  The Depression certainly shaped a lot of common experience, for example. But I am always very suspicious of generalizations about generations. They  are susceptible to the mother of all confirmation biases, extrapolation from one's own experience to national or global trends (though I'll admit too that are own experience is also the data we know best).  Boomer-bashing in particular always gives me hives (great essay by Hal Espen on that front here), as does what I privately call the editorialist's "we" that I associate with Anna Quindlen: "These days we all..."  "We" in such a mode may be set up to signify "we Americans" or "we 20something Chinese," but it usually means my socio-economic cohort or even  "me and my friends."  In a real sense generations don't exist: children are born every second, and the historical change that affects us all usually happens slowly.
I can cut your young and almost-young contributors "post-80s" contributors some slack. Speaking for "my generation" is (or should be) an ornament of youth. There may be some truth to some of what they suggest. But they're on shaky ground.<<
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

From This Author

Just In