January 6, 2014

Is nostalgia narcissistic? Or only for Boomers?

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.


  1. So when is the next best time to have a kid? I don't want my kid to be a part of a useless generation.

    Millenials are nostalgic about video games and TV shows they grew up with in the 90s. They lament the fact that those after them grew up with nothing but garbage.

  2. As a millenial (born 1989) I can say that there is a nostalgia for those of us raised before cell phones and before helicopter parenting really went crazy. If I wanted to play with friends I would pick up the landline, wired phone and have everyone's phone number memorized. My mother sent us out to play in the neighborhood with all the kids all day and come in at dinnertime. I could ride my bike far from home and explore the neighborhood and my mother never worried and I always found my way home. None of the neighborhood kids had helicopter parents, they all came out and played dozens of games and we even had tag-team wrestling matches.

    This was in a safe white suburb; I remember there was one Asian in my grade and in my whole school there were maybe two black girls, so take that as you will.

  3. 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?

    Sinatra and other similar crooners seem fairly popular among the Boomer Generation folks I know... but... I do think that they wouldn't place them in a mixtape that was supposed to "evoke" the 1960s. I'm not so sure why..

  4. I think Strauss and Howes range of 1943-60 makes more sense culturally than the orthodox 1946-64.

  5. Anonymous at 9:57, if the 30/60 year cycles hold true, a good time to have kids would be early 2020s possibly?

  6. I agree. Most people born in 1943 identify more with boomers.

    My mother born in 1944, and was the oldest of 5 siblings and identifies with the boomers. My father, born in 1942 , would never claim to be a boomer..

  7. A biggest on the Boomer generation was their huge population.

    While the millennial shave more than Generation X, the boomers and Gen X were mostly children of Americans, while the Millennials are comprised of significant numbers of first generation children.

    Probably close to 20% of Millennials have parents born outside the US, while Boomers and Gen X had less than 10% of their parents born elsewhere .

  8. I agree, people born in 1943 are more like baby boomers. WHile those born in 1963, 1964 are more like Gen Xers

  9. The slogan "Don't trust anybody over 30" was coined during the protests in Berkley, in 1964-65, meaning that they probably considered people born after 1935 as "one of them".

    But about this point: "Civil Rights, second wave feminism, electing Johnson -- all had nothing to do with Boomers." Although the Democrat vs. Republican thing can obscure this to modern eyes, for what I know, in the mythology of "The Sixties" Johnson was the "bad" ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many babies you kill today?") - then, form the "The Sixties" mythology point of view, the big event was not the election of Johnson, but Jonhson quitting for trying the reelection in 1968, and I think that in these event the Boomers had a big role.

  10. Yet about the limits of the generation - my impression (very limited, as a Portuguese) is that the timeframe that, in US are called "The Sixties" was basically 1964-1974 (from the first protests in Berkey to the resignation of Nixon; in the cultural front, the Beatles become known in US in December 1963, what could count as "1964").

    If we consider that a "generation" can be defined for the marked events that occured to them between 15-25 years of age, the hardcore "60s generation" will be inded the people born between 1944 and 1954 (who spent most of his "formative years" in "the 60s"), however could be enlarged to 1939-1959 (including all people who spent some of the formative years in "the 60s").

  11. I was born in 1969 and have more in common with boomers born in 63 and 64 than with those born after 1979. I think is because I remember well the Carter years, gas lines, disco and saw Jaws and Star Wars in the drive in movie theatre. The younger kids also grew up with cool home video games and played less outside, and had VCRs so they had many more home activities. While we had a black and white TV until 1979.

    I joined a Fraternity in 1988 and some of the older brother were born in 64 . One became my "big brother" and he never considered himself a boomer. He thought it was strange to be considered a boomer, as he had little in common with his older boomer siblings born in 1951, 54, 56. He was the youngest of 8. His older siblings had a very different childhood and college experience and their musical tastes were different. It seemed to bother him to be labelled a baby boomer, because he did not identify with the 60s at all.

  12. I personally have always felt those born from about 1939-59 to be boomer in attitude...they love conspicuous consumption and both my parents born in 1940 were cut from this cloth. They were also early helicopter parents.
    I can't stand nostalgia myself and never felt I fitted into my own generation (Gen X). I found them backward looking and fixated on 60s and 70s culture, fine when you're 14, not so great at 40. Although this may be the fault of the Boomers too, but I find these two generations don't want to try anything new. And also whatever is new nowadays isn't built on strong foundations (ie having learned skills before computers became commonplace) so that doesn't have a lot of integrity either.
    I have absolutely no nostalgia for the 90s whatsoever. It was a very difficult and un-fun decade to be in for me personally and looking back I wonder what on earth happened, it was a complete waste of time. The 80s and to some degree the Noughties were a bit better, but I absolutely don't rate Gen X as cultural leaders, they wouldn't know what that was :P

  13. Why didn't you save yourself the trouble of writing this blather about the unhealthiness of nostalgia? That goes for the hostile WSJ article as well. If you grew up with great tv shows starting in childhood, you're gonna remember them. If you get together with a few friends, you're gonna talk about it and maybe order a few dvds or subscribe to ME TV. And if you're a boomer doing this, some marketer will notice this and start writing commercials and ads to get you to buy more stuff based on nostalgia.

    There's nothing wrong with recounting great chikdhood memories. I think it's sad some of these were mere tv shows instead of real life childhood adventures. But in either case, it's not narcissism. The press is always using psychiatric terms to describe social conditions. Listen to the libretto of Leonard Bernstein: "I've got a social disease". That's America's illness, not narcissism. At least boomers made good buddies with each other, and enjoy recounting old memories, including TV shows. There's an addictive quality to TV that's far more important than the faux narcissism you strain to describe, by the way. But while reminiscing, they've also lived productive lives and raised chikdren, while you're just 30-somethings whining about things you know nothing about. Write articles about your own uninteresting generation.


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