An alert popped up recently on my iPhone: I'd been "tagged" in an Instagram of Prosecco and fancy cupcakes. "Celebrated last day of college in Prof. Quigley's class," read the caption, with the hashtag "#tbt." Millennials love to post that hashtag, short for "throwback Thursday," with old photos.
Whether it's throwback Thursday, Nickelodeon's The Splat with TV shows from the '90s, adult coloring books or sleep-away camps for grownups, millennials love to wax nostalgic. Every generation likes to look back at happy memories because they make us feel better. But doesn't nostalgia mean old, not new?
"Nostalgia used to imply something that happened 30 years ago, but social media has narrowed that window," says Marlene Morris Towns, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. With just a few taps on a cellphone, millennials can post a photo from five years ago in college or 20 years ago from second grade.
This passion for the past has been stoked by advertisers; they see it as an opportunity to reach a huge audience of millennials, says Towns. A survey found that the warm and fuzzy feelings nostalgia generates make consumers more willing to spend money. She also notes that some savvy marketers have found ways to appeal to multiple generations, pointing to a Mercedes Super Bowl commercial aimed at millennials that featured a Rolling Stones song. "That way they pitch boomers, too."
Nostalgia also provides a time-out from the emotional and economic stresses of adulthood. A Ypulse survey found that about 70 percent of 18- to 33-year-olds say they love doing things that make them temporarily forget that they are adults. "The past is predicable, while the present is anything but," says Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps. "The past looks idyllic when the economy was going great and you didn't take off your shoes to get on a plane."
Another reason that millennials love the '90s, Brown says, is that seemingly everyone — young and old — could share a cultural event. "You'll never again have everyone in the country talking about 'Who shot JR?' Now everyone is watching different shows." And at different times. But in the '90s, before on-demand, laptop viewing, many kids recall the shared generational experience of coming home from school and plopping down onto the family couch to watch Rugrats on an actual TV set.
For Brown, a favorite childhood touchstone is Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. "Mister Rogers was dedicated to not shielding children of realities of life," she says. "He addressed really complicated topics directly. Even as an adult, I like going back to his simple explanations."
How can boomer parents tap into this nostalgic trip? Business professor Towns suggests branding ourselves as a way to better communicate with adult children. "Brands are generally uninvited guests on social media, but if they are on Instagram or Facebook and blend in, they can communicate with people who may not otherwise listen, and they can become part of the conversation. Boomers can act like brands."
So figure out Instagram to put up a throwback Thursday post, or give a like (no negative or wordy comments) on a Facebook posting. "Think of this as just another line of communication," Towns says. "It might not be one that you are familiar with, but this is how millennials live. And it's a great vehicle for getting to know your kids better."
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://Mothering21.com