March 27, 2012

Millennials getting nostalgic for not having a life as kids

On Facebook a friend born in 1989 posted a link to 10 things '90s kids will have to explain to their children. In the comments there, someone posted a link to an even more extensive list of things '90s kids realize, a nostalgia site. Last, among the highest-rated articles at Retro Junk, another nostalgia site, is a three-parter about growing up in the '90s. The writer was born in 1987 and wrote them when he was 22 to 23 (here, here, and here). I poked around more of the site's high-rated articles about being a '90s kid, and his take seems pretty representative.

What jumps out is how they must have never gone outside as children, or even done anything physical while inside, let alone interact with other people. Just about everything in these lists is TV shows, video games, and movies (I hope they at least left the house to see them in theaters). That degree of solipsism is a huge change compared to children of the 1980s. *

Consider the list of about 140 items from the Things '90s Kids Realize site. (Note: as of fall 2011 when I tallied them up.) I count roughly 14 things that are not TV, movies, and video games.

Like any generation they have good memories of snack foods: fruit snacks (like Gushers), Dunkaroos, pizza Lunchables, fruit stripe gum, juice boxes, and breakfast cereal.

There's only 2 real references to toys or fads: pogs and gel pens. (I group Tamagotchis under video games.) In the first link's comments, several people mentioned those dorky trading card games like Magic. I assumed that toys would have made up a huge part of a guy's boyhood memories -- action figures, building / engineering toys, weapons, or whatever else. Millennials were too busy leveling up their Pokemon to be shooting cap guns or making their own world out of Legos.

Just one reference to clothes (although it is written by a guy): L.A. Gear shoes. Those are actually from the later '80s, but maybe they changed the look in the '90s. Obviously girls from the '80s would list a lot of clothing-related memories, but I think even guys would include Reebok Pumps or Nike Air shoes, Hypercolor, slap bracelets, neon Swatch watches, etc., in their list.

Only two items about music. One is the "Jump On It" dance from an episode of Fresh Prince, as well as the "I'm Too Sexy" song. That first link mentioned the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and 'NSYNC. However, none of these writers express how in love they were with the music -- they just report that so-and-so was trendy, and that some of the guys were cute. I never got attached to '90s music either, but you'd think they would have at least gotten into some kind of music. They just don't dig it at all, whereas music is one of the first things people mention when you ask them what about the '80s they're aching to return home to.

There's one mention of slang -- "da bomb", although they didn't invent that. It was either Gen X-ers or the early '80s cohort; Millennials are not creative enough to come up with even a lame slang phrase like "that's da bomb." In fairness, it's usually teenagers who make up new slang, not children. And yet Millennials didn't do anything there once they became teenagers, in contrast to the Valley girls and surfer dudes, who were cooking up hot new buzz words every week.

And scarcely two references to books: the Goosebumps series, and ordering from the Scholastic Book Club. I was surprised not to see Harry Potter books show up, but as I recall that was when little kids' books started to be aimed more at high school and college students instead of little kids themselves. The explosion in good children's books from the '60s through the '80s would surely show up on a nostalgia site for having grown up then. Dr. Seuss, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Bridge to Terabithia, just to name a few. Certainly authors have continued writing kids' books, but they're either not as good or the would-be audience isn't as excited to explore new worlds as they used to be, since books have left little impression on '90s kids.

The exceptions above are as fun as their childhood ever got, while about 90% of it was boring TV shows, video games, and movies. Part of this is not their fault, but due to the overall plummeting of creativity and innovation over the past 20 years. And another part is not their fault either, but due to their helicopter parents banning anything from the home that would develop their character, bones, or muscles, allowing only things that inculcate passivity (like video games) or that superficially exercise the brain (like flashcards and shallow types of non-fiction -- maybe Wikipedia by now).

Still, even if we had been subjected to loony parents, we would have disobeyed them. Millennials bear the blame for welcoming their own imprisonment. And even if the culture-makers had not given us exciting new things to play with, we would have made it ourselves, like when we invented games like ball tag and Butt's Up, when some other generation invented the cushion-and-blanket fort, or when we pretended that tree branches were guns and swords. Not to mention when kids made up their own songs ("99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"), urban legends, and other folklore. So Millennials also bear the blame for not inventing a culture of their own.

If it was this bad in the '90s, it could only have gotten worse in the 2000s. When I see him, I try to help my nephew enjoy real childhood experiences, like trekking through the woods and bashing open rotten logs to look at the squirming bugs inside. (He got a real wide-eyed kick out of that -- "An' granma! An', an', an' we saw BUGS!!!") But I only get to see him a handful of times a year. Shoot, even if he were my own son you can only work so hard against the broader societal forces pushing in the sissy shut-in direction. But you still have to do it.

* During our nostalgia trips, my generation would bring up things like the roller rink, mini-golf, hiking home from school through the woods, play-fighting in the woods, cruising around the mall, camping in the back yard, riding our bikes everywhere, etc. Even activities that are now solitary used to be social, like going to the arcade or a friend's house to play video games, rather than play them only while being holed up alone indoors.


  1. A lot of the stuff on the retrojunk list is physical - velcro wall, human gyroscope, scooters, crocodile mile, skip it, moon boots, skateboard, BMX, super soaker, nerf gun, laser tag, grinding shoes. Not sure how many of these are 90s rather than late 80s innovations, but they are real things from that time.

    Just about everything in these lists is TV shows, video games, and movies (I hope they at least left the house to see them in theaters). That degree of solipsism is a huge change compared to children of the 1980s.

    Be interesting to see an actual "kid of the 1980s" list rather than a hypothetical one. The early 80s birthers I know tend to bang on about the A-Team and 80s cartoons like He Man and the Racoons, GI Joe, Mysterious Cities of Gold and Transformers in a way that would probably seem a bit pathetic to a 50s birth (and to present day young kids). I know you've said before that early 80s birthers are obsessed with their childhoods because the culture took a bad turn in the 1990s.

    And even if the culture-makers had not given us exciting new things to play with, we would have made it ourselves, like when we invented games like ball tag and Butt's Up

    wiki says the Butt's Up game was invented in the 1940s or 1950s.

    when some other generation invented the cushion-and-blanket fort, or when we pretended that tree branches were guns and swords. Not to mention when kids made up their own songs ("99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall")

    When I go up to see my little 6 year old sister, she's always covered in bruises and riding around on her bike and leaping around making up crazy games and stuff. Might be an outlier.

    I wonder if a lot of this is that to the extent that kids do stuff, it's just that videogames and TV and toys are hyperintense compared to how it used to be, and makes more of an impression. I know you think that modern TV and games have a thin substance to them and less bright, and intense experiences though...

  2. Assigning blame to everyone in one born in the same span of time makes sense how?

    What does blame mean for you?

  3. "A lot of the stuff on the retrojunk list is physical"

    On the first one, but not really across all three. And again I'm going by the overall view from all of these kinds of lists I've seen, as well as tuning in when I hear Millennials getting nostalgic on Facebook, overhearing them on campus or in Starbucks, etc.

    The main change I'm drawing attention to, though, is the locked-indoors vs. out-in-public way of life. Plus more imaginative and creative things like books, music, and children's own folklore.

    "Be interesting to see an actual "kid of the 1980s" list rather than a hypothetical one."

    Here is a decent collection of Retro Junk articles from a guy born in 1977.

    Notice how much is about being outside and in public spaces: making forts, playgrounds, trick-or-treating, making the rounds at the convenience stores (I never see unaccompanied children in 7-11 anymore). And he didn't even mention other obvious ones like the mall, roller rink, arcade, etc.

    Butt's Up is definitely not from the '40s or '50s. In central Ohio it showed up in 1990 or '91, which I remember because no one played it at all before then, then suddenly it was all the rage. When I moved to suburban Maryland in 1992, it was huge there too, with the same rules.

    The Wikipedia link just says that as a penalty phase of other street games, sometimes a kid would line up to get beaned by the ball. Butt's Up is closer to raquetball, with the ball being hand-thrown instead of paddled, and with fewer regulations.

    "I wonder if a lot of this is that to the extent that kids do stuff, it's just that videogames and TV and toys are hyperintense compared to how it used to be, and makes more of an impression."

    I doubt it, since the TV shows, movies, and video games that we *did* spend time on have left a strong impression. It's just that we were outside for so much of the day that a lot of other memories crowd them out.

    It may not be a difference in the qualities of the TV shows and video games themselves (though that too), but in how drawn to them kids are. We all loved Nintendo when it came out, or watching Mr. Wizard's World and Transformers, but there was so much else to do that we got bored of TV and Nintendo more quickly.

    Maybe an hour of video games at most, then it was outside to ride our bikes to the park, playground, or mall.

  4. "What does blame mean for you?"

    Blame for why Millennials turned into such dorks? Hardly any, since I was not one myself and was not one of the adults who controlled the environment they grew up in (parents, teachers, bureaucrats, etc.).

    I did make an effort to show littler guys the ropes of growing up when I was an early teenager, but by that time little children were too avoidant or afraid to want to hang out with the cool older kids.

    And yes, that was a real change, since in the '80s and early '90s we wanted to grow up as soon as we could, and tried to get as into the teenage circles as far as they'd tolerate us.

    I'll probably put up a separate post on this. Not many people think about how different age groups affect each other when they're closer in age, like teenagers and older elementary school kids. Usually the talk is about people in their 30s or over and pre-pubescent children, or adolescents vs. the middle-aged and elderly.

  5. But aren't outdoors activites just as anti-social?

  6. "Blame for why Millennials turned into such dorks?"

    What's wrong with being a dork? What has Generation X contributed, besides record levels of crime?


  8. Ghost Runner on 3rd10/1/15, 6:47 PM

    The older this 1987 birth gets, the more he appreciates the fact that his parents forbade all video games and strictly limited TV time. (Actually, now that I think about it, I remember that we didn't HAVE any TV for a while, because my mother got sick of us fighting over the station). I was also lucky that the other families in our neighborhood were mostly too blue-collar to afford all the latest fashionable plastic crud, so we kids played outside a lot. That's not to say I didn't like hokey TV shows and the associated merchandise as much as any other kid, I just never got to see as many episodes as I wanted.

    Maybe because of that atypical-for-the-period childhood, I get weirded-out when people my age wax nostalgic about being a "'90s Child". Most of those lists just remind me of stupid crap that I would much rather forget, lots of which I even thought was stupid at the time (perhaps insufferably, I counted NOT owning any Pokemon junk as a badge of honor, though someone eventually dumped some unwanted cards on me as the fad was dying. The music I found unlistenable then, and still unlistenable today). Who says to himself, "Yeah, I'm proud that I wasted most of my childhood watching poorly-written TV programming solely designed to sell me toys manufactured in a Chinese sweatshop"? Alright, fine, we all lived through it, but is that something you really want to celebrate? It's like they're bragging about how soulless they are.

  9. "But aren't outdoors activites just as anti-social?"

    No offense but this seems like an extremely weird question. Most outdoors activities that people remember involve doing things with other people, but even hiking alone would be an improvement over sitting in front of a TV or having your face lit up by a smartphone screen, simply because it involves physical interaction.

    Social interaction mediated by the Internet is unavoidably synthetic because physicality plays such a large role in social behavior. You can't have sharp memories of sitting in front of a computer the way you can of being at a party, hanging out with a group of friends, or having an intense conversation with someone because are brains are wired for social behavior. Personality is after all formed through social interaction, so even who you are is largely a product of this sort of experience. There is plenty of evidence that technology-mediated social interaction does not engage people in rich emotional experiences.

    Personally what I experience most is a kind of anti-nostalgia: nostalgia for life before cell phones and computers, in which the pace was slower because daily activity was filled with pauses and meaningful social interactions.

  10. Millennials have real difficulty understanding what that was like because in their mind, the pre-internet and pre-cell phone era means the majority of the '90s, when their helicopter parents kept them inside and away from peers. They were still parked in front of a screen for TV, movies, and video games. If they felt a boring lull coming up, they turned on the TV to any of dozens of cable channels, popped in any of a number of Disney VHS tapes, or played video games for hours.

    Children in the '80s had TV, VCRs, and video games, but we didn't stay glued to them for the majority of our free time. It got boring pretty soon, and we were itching to go play outside, ride our bikes to our friend's house, or just play with action figures in our room.

    It's striking how little physicality there is in children's indoor lives nowadays (I'm sure it was like that for Millennials too). They only rarely do things like do gymnastics over the furniture, scale the bunk beds like a climbing wall (without the ladder), play hide and go seek, push each other around in cardboard boxes, or stage elaborate battles with their toys.

    They're indoors, sheltered from the dangerous outside world and from peers, but that's not enough for helicopter parents. Bubble-wrapping does not end at the front-yard gate.

  11. Goosebumps "novels" were way over-hyped. The text was so bland that the cover illustrations were more imaginatively engaging than the actual story. I read a handful of them as a kid but found the prose quite boring as well as the twist endings. They were also very short, printed with huge text spaced like someone was trying to inflate his essay length. You could start one in the morning, finish by lunchtime, at which point you were expected to get your parents to go buy you another shitty Goosebumps "mystery thriller." I never bothered asking mine for Goosebumps novels, and I was fortunate that I had access to some much better J novels such as Hatchet, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Dr. Doolittle, 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Encyclopedia Brown (short story collection), The Twenty-One Balloons etc. And once I discovered the Redwall novels around age 11, it was game over for spineless children's literature. I wonder why Redwall isn't mentioned on the lists? As one guess, they're fairly long and spend many pages describing food/nature in reflective, well-crafted prose. This may not have sat well with 90s kids as ADD was just really coming into vogue. For another, they are violent in parts while affirming traditional values. I wonder whether 90s kids couldn't handle the graphic details of good guys killing and being killed. Here you have a volcano populated by hares and a badger lord where they eat vegetarian meals in-between murdering bad guys (Salamandastron). When an all-black fox enters the mountain stronghold and poisons the food & water supply, the badger lord murders him with his bare hands and stuffs his poison sack down his throat. Late-90s kids missed out on some good reading.

  12. "Goosebumps "novels" were way over-hyped"

    Most culture that appeared around 1989 and thereafter is way over-hyped. Why? Because it's usually not very good. When books, songs, movies, etc. were better in the 70's and 80's, people didn't have to pysch themselves and other people into believing that it was good. The quality spoke for itself. During the peak of creativity that occured from about 1977-1987, people enjoyed stuff without flipping out over it. From what I understand, the 1989 Batman movie (which is mediocre) was the beginning of the modern hype machine telling you that you needed to see something. Since the movie itself wasn't good enough to warrant excitement, that excitement had to be contrived. 1989/1990 also had numerous sequels that were clearly inferior to the earlier films like Ghostbusters 2, Back to the Future 2, the 4th and 5th Elm Street movies, etc. The ideas were drying up.

  13. The difference is immense between kids these days and the childhood of earlier generations. As a GenXer, my childhood was essentially the same as that of my parents born on the edge of the Silent generation. Like my parents, I rode my bike around freely, played with almost no supervision, and had a paper route. That was what a normal childhood used to mean.

    I earned my own money and saved it in a bank account. On top of that, my friends and I would look through dumpsters for can refunds and then buy food and candy with what we earned. We were literally latchkey kids. My parents both worked and, with no parents at home when I got out of school, I had a key that hung on a string around my neck to let myself in if need be, although back then we rarely locked the door.

    We wandered freely after school. Hours were spent making forts in woods, catching crawdads in creeks, tromping around, playing outdoor games, and riding are bikes for miles. On weekends, we wandered even further, as far a nearby towns and way out in the countryside. And my parents almost never knew where I was or worried about us, even as my parents were sticklers about rules but the rules were simple and I mostly obeyed them.

    Another big difference was limited media. My family didn't get cable until I was in 11th grade. Until then, network tv only had kids programming in the afternoon during the week and on Saturday morning. We did have an Atari which we only occasionally played and we had a computer that had no internet. We went outside largely because we got bored inside. But even inside involved much roughhousing and inventive play with action figures, puppets, and cars.

    My nieces and nephews have grown up in an entirely different world. My oldest niece admitted to having first climbed a tree last year and she is in high school. Holy shit! By that age, I had climbed thousands of trees. I've gone to much effort to show my nephew the joys of being outdoors. But unless an adult goes with him, he won't do much of anything by himself such as walk to a nearby creek or bike around the neighborhood, not that his parents have allowed him to do much until recently.

    It's truly bizarre. There is another strange thing. Many of the toys, tv shows, and movies that kids have these days actually originate from my childhood. I went to my nephew's birth day a while back and was surprised that almost every toy he got was from the '80s or early '90s: Legos, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, Nerf guns, etc. It's not only my GenX brothers imposing helicopter parenting and cocooning on their children, it appears that GenX is imposing its childhood entertainment on kids as well.

    It makes me wonder about what effect this will have. I watched Stranger Things with my nephew and niece. It portrayed my childhood with kids riding around on their bikes and going to video arcades. But to younger kids, such a portrayal might as well be a fantasy world. It's never existed in reality for them and maybe they don't even realize that is how kids once lived.

  14. Millennials have disowned Harry Potter because the author is against the trans crap and supports the rights of women to single-sex spaces.


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