Premature nostalgia

Growing up here in the 1980s, my friends and I would mock older generations for always talking about the past: the lady on the bus who claimed that the youth of yesteryear were far more polite than today's rowdy teens; the aging nun who ran our school library and complained that "novels aren't what they used to be"; the retired soldier who lived on our street, bellowing, "They should bring back National Service for you useless gits!" every time we sped past his house on our BMXs.

How lame, we thought, to live in the past. As far as we were concerned, nostalgia was for has-beens, and it rotted the brain. We much preferred the sentiment expressed in a song by the Stone Roses, the biggest British rock band of the time: "The past is yours, but the future's mine."

Yet today, as my generation turns 30-something, we have become the biggest nostalgia-freaks of all. Young adults are as likely to wallow in the past as any old-age pensioner. Indeed, no sooner do we hit adulthood these days than we seem to get all teary-eyed over our childhood days, looking back longingly to a past that has only just passed.

There are already 1990s revivals, where 20- and 30-somethings relive the experiences they first had only a few years ago. BBC TV broadcast a nostalgic series, avidly watched by friends of mine, called "I Love the 1990s," which devoted an hour-long program to each year of that decade and the music, fads, fashion, and toys that apparently made it so memorable (though it would be hard to forget something so recent).

"I Love 1999," the last in the series - which included reminiscences about the Blair Witch Project, the rise of text- messaging and the Britney vs. Christina spat - was broadcast in the summer of 2001. That suggests that the threshold for getting nostalgic about the "past" is now less than two years.

How long before someone revives 2001 or 2002, and encourages us to relive the "greatest moments of the 'noughties' "? After all, isn't that historic Britney and Christina catfight ongoing?

Our American cousins seem equally nostalgic for the '90s. NerveAna, a New York nightclub that opened last month, plays only music from the '90s; it also has a "Forrest Gump bench" and other '90s-related paraphernalia.

Some British adults, not content with simply remembering their school days, try to recreate them on a Saturday night. "School Disco" is London's most successful club night theme. Young men and women dress in school uniforms and dance to the hits of 5, 10, or 15 years ago. School-uniform outfitters have reported a "roaring trade in adult-sized uniforms."

Then there's Friends Reunited, the British version of, where you can hook up with old schoolfriends or share your memories of "the best days of your life." It is one of the most popular websites in Britain, claiming more than 10 million registered members (out of a national population of 60 million), and the evidence suggests that many of the members are young adults: for my high school, there are 1,011 members from the '90s compared with 472 from the '60s.

How did my generation become the nostalgics, clinging to the past rather than embracing the future? It looks to me like an attempt to put off adulthood for as long as possible, to pull up the comfort blanket of childhood memories as a guard against the big, bad world of maturity and responsibility. The founder of School Disco, Bobby Sanchez, says he first got the idea for his theme night when he drove to his old school and wondered: "Could I go back, and not have to deal with mortgages, girlfriend problems, and 9-to-5 work?"

At least those older people we uncharitably criticized when we were kids had lived a full life; they had experiences to look back on. Our nostalgia, by contrast, is about reverting to a childlike state - even dressing up as a child on a Saturday night. Isn't it time to put away childish things?

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of the online magazine 'spiked'

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