The new age of Generation Z Unlock report

Nostalgia is probably something pretty much all of us will have experienced before. A wistful trip down memory lane to times that seemed simpler or better. A feeling evoked in us while listening to a certain song, seeing a particular photograph, or watching a film we saw when we were a child. 

After the last few turbulent years, people are looking back to simpler times for comfort and escape. Whether that’s pre-Covid or beyond, people are feeling more nostalgic than ever. 

We’ve seen Y2K fashion make a comeback and it’s set to remain for 2023, 80s fighter pilot and lovable rogue Maverick returned to our screens, and Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” topped the UK’s charts in 2022 thanks to Stranger Things. 

So what’s driving nostalgia today? And how can brands harness its power in their marketing strategy?

Which generations are feeling nostalgic?

As a generation, Gen Z are the most nostalgic, with 15% feeling that they’d prefer to think about the past rather than the future. Millennials aren’t much further behind at 14%, and the preference continues to taper off with age. 

Gen Z and millennials are driving nostalgia in the media too. Gen Z are in the lead again with 50% of this generation feeling nostalgic for types of media, followed by 47% of millennials.

So, while all generations feel nostalgic to some degree, it’s the younger ones who are driving the trend today. 

As we mentioned before, it’s been a tough couple of years for everyone, but younger generations seem to have felt the effects most. Many faced disruptions to their education, graduates struggled to find jobs, and younger workers were hit harder by the Covid job market with many losing jobs, hours, or being put on leave. 

Since then, many have been struggling with the cost of living crisis and talk of a recession in some markets continues to swirl. While these issues impact everyone, the younger generations who are still at the beginning of their careers are likely to feel the effects more. 

As a result, today’s youth have started searching for comfort in a time before social media existed. 

Considering Gen Z were born sometime between 1997 to 2006, 37% say they feel nostalgic for the 1990s – a decade when some were very young, and others weren’t even born yet. 

Why the 90s? Well, for Gen Z it’s about the whole vibe. Many feel that the era represents a carefree time that was about having fun. Considering the stressful reality we’ve been experiencing over the last few years, it’s no wonder Gen Z are feeling nostalgic for a simpler time. 

So, for brands planning to hop on the nostalgia trend, it would be wise to bear in mind who’s feeling a trip down memory lane right now, and understand why they crave a return to the past. 

Nostalgia’s in vogue 

Gen Z’s nostalgia has extended to their taste in fashion. With 54% of Gen Z liking the style of vintage clothes, many trends from the 90s and Y2K have experienced a resurgence in the last few years. 

The generation have brought back 90s and early 00s fashion trends like glitter details, claw clips, and Von Dutch caps. The generation have also declared the beloved millennial skinny jeans “dead” and are sporting more 90s low-rise styles instead.

Fashion brands have also worked hard to keep up with the demand for throwbacks. Everlane, for example, began selling a “puddle pant”, a style of pants which are described as “the perfect antidote to skinny jeans”. The style is clearly popular with the brand having a waitlist as long as 6,000 people trying to get their hands on a pair. 

The Y2K fashion trends aren’t going anywhere either. Google searches for “Y2K” have been on the rise ever since 2021, and fashion magazine Vogue’s 2023 trends forecast says 90s and 00s nostalgia will remain. 

Many may remember Y2K trends as a time when super-skinny bodies were also “in”, but Gen Z are bringing the fashions back with more body positivity. So while they’re nostalgic for the trends of the era, they’re keen to leave unhealthy 90s beauty standards in the past. 

Gen Z calls for brands to leave these attitudes behind too, with 41% wanting retailers to offer more inclusive sizes, and 38% wanting to see a wide range of body types in advertising. 

This generation are also a more anxiety-prone group than older groups, with social media having a further impact. Not everything in the past was good or comforting, so for brands bringing the 90s back, it’s important to lean into the positive and healthier aspects of the era. 

Nostalgia on the screen

It’s not just experiences from the past or previous relationships that can make us feel sentimental – media’s a key driver for all generations when it comes to nostalgia. Things like movies, TV shows, and music can all trigger the feeling in us, with 46% of consumers feeling this way.

This isn’t something that’s generation, region, or gender-specific either. Movies, TV shows, and music appear among the top three types of media which make people feel nostalgic across all of these demographic breakdowns. 

Nostalgia in the media has appeared in many forms over the last few years. A bunch of Disney films made decades ago, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, Lady and the Tramp etc, have been remade to be live action or realistic animation, and there are many more in the works too. For audiences, it’s an opportunity to look back at stories associated with their childhood, but with a more contemporary and inclusive look. 

Sequels have also been released, years after the original movie came to theaters. Top Gun: Maverick was released last year, 36 years after the original 80s movie, and was a box office hit grossing $1.488 billion. James Cameron’s sequel to Avatar also came to screens in 2022, over ten years after the original, with further sequels in the pipeline, and it’s already overtaken Titanic as the third highest grossing movie of all time. 

Other TV shows and movies have simply been based in a previous decade – Stranger Things, for example, is set during the 1980s and last year racked up 7.2 billion minutes of streaming in the US between May 30 and June 5 last year. Fans even briefly crashed Netflix’s platform when the final two episodes of season four were released. Despite being set in the 80s, the series has been a real hit among Gen Z, likely because it represents the pre-internet days, something of a novelty to this young generation. 

That said, it’s important to note that while nostalgia can be a powerful tool, it should be used in the right way if it’s going to be effective. 

This is where media outlets need to be careful, while audiences clearly think the Top Gun sequel was on the money, if it was done differently the movie may have been seen as “unoriginal” and might not have been the smash hit it was. 

Many brands are using nostalgia in their ads lately too. Ads at the Superbowl this year were throwing it back with references from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. 

There’s a likely reason behind the nostalgia we’ve been seeing on our screens lately. As mentioned before, people have a lot to contend with right now, and many are experiencing crisis fatigue, the feeling of overwhelm and helplessness we experience when exposed to constant pressures. In the last few years we’ve had Covid, the cost of living crisis, and the war in Ukraine in the headlines, it’s been a lot.

Companies are responding to our fatigue in a light-hearted way. People are looking for something that makes them smile, and with 53% saying they feel happy and 40% saying they feel comforted when they engage with media from the past, nostalgic themes are likely to strike the right note right now. 

Tuning into nostalgia 

When we look at each generation’s top genre of music, they generally prefer the music of the decade they grew up in. That’s aside from Gen Z, whose top genre is Hip-Hop/Rap, very closely followed by 90s music, which for many would have been released before they were even born. 

Nostalgia is key here too. Many turn to music as a form of escapism – 55% say they listen to tunes to remind them of good memories, and 36% listen to escape from reality. Gen Z and millennials in particular use music as a form of escapism.

TikTok has been a key player here, and has helped revive some old songs. Creator Nathan Apodaca filmed himself skating down a highway, drinking cranberry juice and lip-syncing Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit Dreams. The video gained 41 million views and Apodaca became a viral sensation. 

It seems that social media is giving old songs a new audience.

TikTok has also had an impact on how people tune in. Outside of China, Gen Z who use TikTok are 8% more likely than the average Gen Z to listen to music using CDs or vinyls, and 8% more likely to listen to 80s music.

So, for brands looking to use nostalgic media, TikTok could be a good place to start.

Key nostalgia takeaways every brand should know

  • Overall, nostalgia is popular right now because people are reaching for a time of comfort, and as a form of escapism from the unsettled world we live in right now. 
  • But, if nostalgia is going to be used, brands and media outlets need to be careful. A lot has changed since the decades people feel nostalgic about, and while use in the media and fashion is likely to be popular, that’s only if it’s forward-thinking, inclusive, and retains the healthier aspects of the era. 
  • Media outlets also need to be aware that creating remakes or sequels is risky, if done incorrectly it can be seen as unoriginal and could ultimately flop. The success of Top Gun: Maverick is an example of a sequel being done right – the movie involved relevant nods to its original, without being a slave to it. 
  • Brands should be aware of the darker side of nostalgia. Gen Z’s particular interest in nostalgia tells us something: they’re not sure about their online lives, and are looking for a better version of what we had before.
The new age of Gen Z Unlock the report

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