Gen Z’s Love for Nostalgia

The Emergence of the Throwback Economy

Nostalgia occurs in our culture in regular cycles.

In the 1970s, Americans wistfully dialed their clocks back to the “Happy Days” of the 1950s, donning poodle skirts and catching screenings of American Graffiti and Grease.

Since the turn of the millennium, 80s throwbacks have reigned supreme, from high-waisted jeans and retro pop music to nostalgia-saturated movies and TV shows like It, Ghostbusters, and Stranger Things. If there’s one sure bet in American culture, it’s that we love to obsess over the past.

Generation-Z – AKA “zoomers,” those born between the late 90s and the late 2000s – is no exception. A wave of 90s and early-2000s nostalgia is sweeping this young, influential generation, impacting everything from fashion to entertainment and technology. Some are calling it the Y2K Throwback Moment, and it is a crucial trend for brands to pay attention to.

Not only can brands benefit by responding to the behaviors of this famously unpredictable generation, but they can also gain deeper insights into the cyclical, contradictory nature of nostalgia itself.

Fashion tends to be where nostalgia takes its most visible form. One report from Axios identifies a resurgence of interest in low-rise jeans and mini-skirts, a clear departure from the high-waisted “Mom jeans” that have dominated in recent years. Homemade friendship bracelets, bucket hats, and babydoll T-shirts are also making a comeback, according to NBC, especially on online vintage marketplaces like Depop and Poshmark.

In fact, the explosion of nostalgic fashion has led to a thrift store boom, with both online vendors and brick-and-mortar shops catering to the retro interests of Gen-Z. Legacy brands like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch are even taking advantage of the trend to boost their popularity among younger consumers. When it comes to fashion, it is easy to see that zoomers’ tastes lie firmly in the past.

Although not quite as pervasive, the rise in Y2K nostalgia can also be seen in current entertainment. Zoomer interest in iconic 2000s shows, notably The Sopranos and Friends, has been an inescapable trend in recent years. Although Gen-Z may have little actual memories from these years, they also show a renewed interest in 2000s celebrities like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez – the latter two just in time for an apparent reunion. Current celebrities have been happy to jump on this trend too. One of the coolest examples of melding the old and new in pop culture was Ariana Grande’s music video for “Thank U, Next” in which the pop star dressed up as a series of iconic Y2K movie characters (such as Elle from Legally Blonde and Regina George from Mean Girls.) 

Is Y2K nostalgia just another aesthetic trend, though? Or is it indicative of some deeper truths about Gen-Z? One interesting piece of polling data from John Della Volpe at Harvard shows that a majority of zoomers say that life was better before social media. Further research does suggest that constant social media usage can be linked with anxiety and depression, ailments to which Gen-Z is particularly prone. Does cultural nostalgia, then, represent a desire to return to a simpler past, before the widespread usage of social media and smartphones?

The answer is probably not that simple. Zoomers’ obsession with the fashion and pop culture of yesteryear can be best thought of in the context of an increasingly uncertain future. Political divisions, global crises, and especially the looming threat of climate change have led many zoomers to worry a great deal about the state of the modern world.

In these circumstances, nostalgia can represent both a “bittersweet longing” for simpler times, but also a “stabilizing force” with which to confront current conditions. Gen-Z, after all, is not simply burying themselves in the past, turning a blind eye to the problems that existed then. Many commentators in fact point out a generational desire to “relive the past better,” embracing past trends but looking at them through a critical eye. By confronting the misogyny, toxic paparazzi culture, and other problematic aspects of Y2K, Gen-Z is “looking to the past to build a better future.”

Clearly, then, there is a central contradiction at the heart of zoomers’ Y2K nostalgia, a contradiction that many brands may find difficult to wrap their heads around. Should they jump aboard the nostalgia bandwagon, or should they go all in on the more forward-looking aspirations of Gen-Z?

The comeback of legacy brands, products, and entertainment properties might seem to suggest the former: vinyl sales recently topped CDs for the first time since 1986. However, marketers should keep in mind that nostalgia is but one arrow in their quiver for reaching Gen-Z. Social justice and aspirational brand missions are still crucial to young people. A combination of these strategies is the best way to take advantage of the Y2K nostalgia, and the best way to let zoomers know you can speak their retro-inspired language.

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