In the 1980s, a decade that GenXers might now harken back to, Billy Joel wrote about the allure of nostalgia. “Keepin’ the Faith,” features Joel testifying that his roots have made him who he is, but that he has also moved beyond them. This baby boomer wasn’t “lost in ‘let’s remember’… ‘cause the past is something that never got in my way.” The song reminisces about growing up in New York in the 1950s. He waxes about stickball and ditty bop shades and making out in Chevrolets. But he cautions against being too wrapped up in that nostalgia. “You can linger too long in your dreams… You know the good ole days weren’t always good. And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”
Americans aren’t necessarily heeding that advice. Nearly seven in ten describe themselves as longing for the past, according to an Ipsos Global Trends report. It’s easy to see why people feel that way when you look at the underlying questions in report, which is based on a 23-nation survey was conducted shortly before the U.S. presidential elections last fall.
Most feel that the world is changing too fast (72%), that people had happier lives with fewer problems in previous generations (70%), and that they want to slow the pace of life (55%). The convergence of technology, social media, and instant satisfaction/gratification, are three themes that often emerge in trend data. An escape from these trends is driving Americans’ desire to flee to the past, slow down, and enjoy things like America’s Pastime on a summer porch while sipping lemonade. The only two days you can’t control are yesterday and tomorrow, so how we live today is shaping a nostalgic movement across all demographic segments in the U.S.
Nostalgic, but for when?
When, exactly do they thing things were better? For older Americans, older white Americans especially, they are most likely to say America was at its peak in the 1950s, according to an Ipsos survey related to President Trump’s campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.”
It’s a time discussed in Joel’s “Allentown,” a song about a generation feeling left behind because the steel mills that promised that “…every child had a pretty good shot to get at least as far as their old man got,” had closed and taken the jobs away. When Joel played live in the then-U.S.S.R. – a remarkable series of shows credited with helping open the Soviet Union to western culture, he introduced “Allentown” as a song “about young people living in the north east of America. Their lives are miserable because the steel factories are closing down. They desperately want to leave but they stay because they were brought up to believe that things are going to get better.”
For many, things never did get better and today, nearly half of Americans (45%) feel left behind by society – a feeling that has stretched from Allentown in the Northeast through the rustbelt to the Midwest and the south.
Neither the songs, nor the trends are new
These songs, written decades ago, show that these conflicts aren’t new. The tensions aren’t just geopolitical. They lead to very personal strains. In “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” Joel tells the story of a middle class couple, Brenda and Eddie, whose glory days were spent as the king and queen of the prom. They struggle with money and eventually split up and could never regain what they once had.
How does it play out when so many are feeling so behind? We find the answer in “Angry Young Man.” Joel sings, with conflicted sympathy, “There’s a place in the world for the angry young man, with his working class ties and his radical plans. He refuses to bend he refuses to crawl, and he’s always at home with his back to the wall.”
Today, the government is perceived to be failing its citizens, although in different ways for different groups. It leads to a high level of dissatisfaction with the institutions that were believed to be there to help us succeed. With all of this pressure, it’s no wonder that 78% think the economy is rigged for the rich and 68% don’t identify with what the nation has become. These are clearly trends that cross party lines and were personified in this election cycle by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
For the most part, these songs were written before the current partisan divides, before the fragmentation of media that has driven the growth of so many knowledge bubbles, before many of the cultural divides about abortion, gay marriage and immigration rose to the surface, and before the term ‘political correctness’ was coined.
Yet each has elements that resonate today with the nostalgia that is helping drive a rise in nationalism and populism in the U.S. and throughout the globe. Joel himself might argue we should just accept the present as it is. Rather than focus on the past, he might suggest we follow a song from later in his career, “this is time to remember… these are the days to hold onto.”