Teens on TikTok are faking nostalgia for the 2010s

A viral tweet has called attention to a rising TikTok trend of teenagers posting nostalgic odes to decades in the not-so-distant past. One account hosts a series of high school footage from the mid-aughts or 2010s, typically mismatching them with slowed-down versions of modern songs, in a sense flattening the last 20 or so years into an unintelligible era of good feelings. An incredible example plays footage of the class of 2006 over a slowed-down version of Imagine Dragons’ “It’s Time.”

As someone who graduated from high school in 2012, this was terrifying. Am I old? Relegated to the dustbin of history, but also lucky to grow up during a time that kids now perceive as drastically superior to their current reality? Maybe!

It’s not hard to understand why a generation of kids, currently living through one of the most hyperactive, dizzying times in history, without being able to attend physical classes or in-person graduations, might want to go back to a slower, simpler time with fewer apparent existential pressures. Even if that was only a few years ago. The coronavirus pandemic has made it reasonable to long for even the more recent past. Whether the longing extends back to just months before the pandemic or an even more distant time. Now more than ever, we’re inundated than usual with reunions, reboots, and reappraisals of stars from decades past.

Obviously growing up in the shadow of 9/11, George W. Bush, and a pair of wars weren’t exactly the halcyon days, but most of the teenage pop culture relics of the time were thoroughly honed on escapism. “Zoomers” are the first generation to have never experienced a time without the internet. The material reality wasn’t necessarily any easier back then, there just weren’t as many and readily accessible reminders about how bad it was. And now, of course, things are really bad. Teenagers around the world are graduating into a world where college might fundamentally never look the same. Where this year’s graduating class is facing a once-in-a-generation economic downturn. Where inequality exists at comic book villain levels. Where the planet continues to hurdle towards environmental collapse.

In some ways, this is exactly how nostalgia seems to work. I’ve grown up surrounded by people who, like me, were no older than six or seven years old by the end of the ‘90s, and yet remained fixated on the decade’s cultural landmarks. Friends’ continued popularity, and The Last Dance affirms that interest in the past will always serve those old enough to have lived through it, and those who weren’t quite there for it, but can only see it as a vector by which to compare their own experiences. It's just that a time machine has never seemed more appealing than right now — even just to go back a little.