Here is a WSJ column by Terry Teachout arguing that Baby Boomers' nostalgia is narcissistic. He also argues that they are Peter Pans, and that they value popular rather than high culture, which tie back into their narcissistic nostalgia -- meant to keep them forever young, even if it means focusing on TV shows rather than opera, since you weren't a fan of opera as a child.
I'm just going to explore the question of how nostalgia can take self-centered vs. other-centered forms, and which generations develop which type.
I agree that Boomer nostalgia is self-centered, though only for the early Boomers, exempting those born after the mid-'50s. How did it get that way?
First, folks are only going to feel strong nostalgia about an exciting, outgoing, and fun-filled period. Cocooning periods are too dull and uneventful to evoke much longing once they're over. By "nostalgia," I mean the direct kind -- by the people who actually have vivid, living memories of the period. Not the vicarious kind, where you enjoy a time period that you have few or no such memories of.
Consider how few pop culture examples there are of a longing look back at the mid-century, by actual participants. Whereas folks were already pining for the Roaring Twenties right after they'd ended. See, e.g., Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, published in 1931, as well as many of the scenes in Sunset Boulevard, later still in 1950, regardless of the black humor that's mixed in with the nostalgia.
Hence, the Silent Generation generally doesn't show much nostalgia for their formative years, by comparative standards -- everyone remembers at least some things fondly about the time when they were growing up. Cocooning began coming undone in the later half of the '50s, so some of the latest Silents show strong nostalgia for the early days of rock 'n' roll, '57 Chevrolets, and so on. As do some of the early Boomers who remember that period, albeit from the vantage point of a child rather than a teenager.
To the extent that some Silents do actually feel strong nostalgia, then, it is primarily self-centered -- focused on the period as lived by themselves, and not so much by younger or older generations. They can remember some details about what life was like for 30 and 40-somethings back then -- skinny black ties on a short-sleeved white dress shirt, browline eyeglasses, etc. -- but they don't spontaneously arise as part of the feeling of "Oh, everything was so much better back then!" Their nostalgia is almost entirely focused on the teenage or youth culture, and they don't seem very aware of what life was like for the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit generations.
The outgoing and fun-loving zeitgeist only picked up steam during the '60s and early '70s, which is the period of early Boomer nostalgia. And again, they themselves are still at the center of "what was so great about the old days," with the older generations either out of sight and out of mind, or perceived with disdain -- representing the old order that needed to be transformed. The greatest example of this is the TV show The Wonder Years, where almost no nostalgia is shown for the way that the parents' generation lived during the late '60s and early '70s. For the most part, the older generations were simply invisible, and what the Boomers saw (or believed that they saw), they didn't like -- gruff, taciturn fathers and self-doubting, domestic mothers.
From what I can tell, though, that's mostly a Boomer fabrication to rationalize their ignorance or dismissal of other generations during the '60s and early '70s. They see it as though everyone over 30 was stodgy, gruff, sexist, racist, bla bla bla -- and that maybe that was understandable given the environment the old order had grown up in, but we Boomers are going to change all of that. In reality, every generation became more outgoing and fun-loving during the '60s and early '70s. Somebody was making and starring in all those movies, composing and performing all that music, hosting or starring in all those hit TV shows. And it wasn't Boomers -- they were too damn young. It was everybody else. And everybody else was not just producing but consuming that culture too.
This brings up an important point that deserves its own post, but I keep working it into other posts or comments. That is that the Boomers were too young to have caused anything that went on in the 1960s, other than determining who was at the top of the Billboard charts as consumers (not makers) of pop music. The earliest cohort of Boomers, born in 1946, were between 14 and 24 years old during the decade of the 1960s -- hence, they did not affect the course of history, however much they like to think so, and however much other generations like to blame them so. Most of the major players and grassroots participants were Silents, and depending on the area of society, the later part of the Greatest Gen. Civil Rights, second wave feminism, electing Johnson -- all had nothing to do with Boomers.
In 1970, a 30 year-old career woman complaining about the pattern of unfair treatment in every office and company she's worked for -- was born in 1940. The idea that Boomers were behind it all in the turbulent period circa 1970 is so deeply ingrained in the received wisdom, that you may have to check the birth years of second wave feminists to convince yourself that they were not high schoolers or college sophomores. Campus protesters against the War in Vietnam or against the college administration? Sure, that was them. But that was it.
That's another way in which Boomer nostalgia is narcissistic -- it's self-aggrandizing, given how minimal their participation and influence was on Civil Rights, putting a man on the moon, and anything except for the consumer side of pop music (and related events like Woodstock). There's nothing wrong with recalling those events with longing, but they keep saying "we did this" and "we accomplished that" -- no you didn't, you were still an adolescent. You know that they aren't giving proper credit to the mostly Silent, partly Greatest Gen members who really did accomplish all those things, from their credo "Don't trust anyone over 30," from their portrayal of their parents' generation on The Wonder Years, Back to the Future, and so on. They truly believe, deep down, that a bunch of starry-eyed teenagers altered the course of history by tuning in to it on TV.
Again, I think the late Silents give themselves too much credit for the shaking-up of the later '50s. The charge was led by the Greatest Gen, who were becoming fed up with how stultifying the Company Man way of life had become. And they were certainly in a greater position of societal influence compared to awkward teenagers. Sloan Wilson and Betty Friedan were both late members of the Greatest Gen.
The cause of narcissistic nostalgia? I blame helicopter parenting, or "smothering mothers" as it was known during its most recent peak before the Millennial era. Especially after Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care was published in 1946, children became smothered in attention, praise, self-esteem boosters, and so on. Plus there were just so many of them after fertility rates started shooting up. That's more of a compounding factor, though -- just think if the zeitgeist had been one of "children should be seen and not heard." Then they would've really torn into the brats, who they would've seen as a plague of pests. It took a Dr. Spock mindset among the adult population to give the children that feeling of "everyone's looking at me!" and "I did that!" (No you didn't.)
Is there a generation that feels strong nostalgia, but in a more other-centered way? Perhaps you can tell from the title of a post here from 2012, "Going beyond personal nostalgia in admiring the past," that members of Generation X took in a far greater expanse of social-cultural goings-on back in the '80s. Even for superficial stuff like what clothing and hairstyles were popular, nostalgia isn't restricted entirely to youth culture. You definitely see that -- feathered hair, Jordache jeans, mullets, etc. -- but you also see large shoulder pads on career women, station wagons (driven by a father, not a teenager), old ladies with caked-on blue eyeshadow and sky-high perms, Magnum P.I. mustaches, and so on.
I clearly remember what TV shows were a hit with my parents' generation (and often their parents'), even if I never watched them myself -- Dallas, Matlock, nature documentaries, and Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!
Ditto for pop music. Gen X not only has a soft spot for New Wave that was a hit with young people, but also adult contemporary of the time -- Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Sade, Kate Bush, Phil Collins, just to name a few. When the Boomers reminisce about the sound of 1967, are they including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dean Martin, all of whom had #1 songs on Billboard's adult contemporary / easy listening chart? See here for the hits from '67, almost none of which would show up on a Sixties compilation or playlist.
Compare to the adult contemporary hits of '87, more than half of which could show up on an Eighties compilation. True, they sound a little poppier, but then that's because the average industry-wide had been lifted to a more mature and developed sound -- not the bubblegummy standard to which grown folks music was compared in the '60s. "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "Little Lies" are for people with plenty of life experience, and if teenagers had grown up faster during the '80s than they had in the '60s, then these songs would be a hit on the pop charts too (and they were: #1 and #4 on the Hot 100).
Some of my sharpest memories from the '80s involve much older folks, whether they were the elderly people who lived at the mall -- the largest group aside from teenagers -- the customers who packed the diner across from my elementary school during lunch hours, or those we interacted with during regular visits to and from the nearby senior center. And of course the Golden Girls on TV.
It's not as though it was an elderly culture -- there were plenty of teen-themed movies and sit-coms, youth-oriented pop music, and hang-out spots for teenagers only. But every age group's lives come into view with '80s nostalgia, from young to old.
What accounts for the more other-centered nostalgia of Gen X? Well, it was the reverse of the Dr. Spock cause of narcissistic Boomer nostalgia. Starting in the '60s, but particularly during the '70s and '80s, all that feel-good bullcrap went up in a puff of smoke. Parents, neighbors, grown-ups, and the public came first -- not children. We didn't get that feeling of being so special, the center of constant attention, or having our egos inflated with undeserved praise. If you just saw Anchorman 2, it does a good job of exaggerating the basic parenting style of circa 1980, with the father leaning on the side of harsh, hands-off, and teaching his kid to sink or swim.
That orients the child toward the larger community that he is being prepared to join, causing him to survey a greater expanse of the social-cultural landscape to see what's going on and how he'll need to adapt in order to fit in. If he's already awesome the way he is, he doesn't need to change, and doesn't need to survey the landscape. The grown-up world will need to change itself to adapt to his own awesomeness.
The late Boomers underwent a similar upbringing as the X-ers, though it wasn't quite so pronounced in the '60s. And they too lie more toward the other-centered end of the nostalgia spectrum. I don't get the impression that they really liked any of what the older generations were into during the '70s -- Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand -- but they were at least more aware of them, and they spring immediately to mind when they get nostalgic for the '70s. Sleazy older men, playboys, swingers, disco queens, Archie Bunker, working stiffs stuck in long lines at the gas station, grown-ups being fed up with Carter, talking heads soberly discussing the way out of stagflation...
I don't see the Millennials getting nostalgic about their formative years, one way or another. An earlier post looked at how the only thing they feel nostalgia for is not having a life as kids. If things start shaking up again by the later part of this decade, as I predict they will based on the timing of the last period of cocooning, then there will be another version of the early Boomers. These kids will have been raised during the height of helicopter parenting, but they'll go through adolescence in a more wild and unsupervised time, which because of their upbringing, they will attribute entirely to their own awesomeness.
These kids are already born, but are only in elementary school or younger right now. They will probably prove to be different from Millennials, only they're not old enough to give us that impression yet. If generations tend to last around 20 years, then Millennials we be around 1985 to 2004 births. Kids born in 2005 or after we can call the neo-Boomers for now, until something more distinctive suggests itself.