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How Gen Z’s Love For The Past Is Shaping The Future

How Gen Z’s Love For The Past Is Shaping The Future

For Gen Z, the familiar and predictable nature of the past offers a comforting contrast to the unpredictability of the present.

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Nostalgia isn’t just a longing for the past – it’s a powerful cultural force, especially for Gen Z. 

Born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, this generation has an intricate relationship with nostalgia, often romanticising eras they barely remember or never experienced firsthand. 

In 2022, a survey by DCDX revealed that 97% of Gen Z felt nostalgic, with 53% saying they often or always experience it.

In Malaysia and Southeast Asia, nostalgia is a significant movement reshaping consumer behaviours, cultural expressions, and digital interactions.

(Credit: bangbangvintagestore/miniso.official via Instagram)

Gen Z and single households are shaping new consumer trends, contributing to Southeast Asia’s robust consumer landscape, which is expected to grow to a staggering $4 trillion by 2030.

So brands and businesses that understand and tap into this trend are more likely to resonate with this influential demographic, securing their loyalty and engagement in the long run.

But why are Gen Zs so captivated by the past?

(Credit: friends via Instagram)

Growing up in a hyper-connected digital age, Gen Z is constantly bombarded with information. Social media, online news, and digital ads create a nonstop flow of new content, which can quickly become overwhelming.

In Malaysia, where internet penetration is high and social media usage is among the highest in the world, this digital saturation is particularly pronounced​. This constant influx of new content and trends has led to what some psychologists call “digital fatigue.”

(Credit: imgflip)

For Gen Zs, looking back to the past offers a respite from this overstimulation. Nostalgia provides a mental escape to simpler times, whether it’s the early 2000s fashion or the comfort of classic TV shows. 

The familiar and predictable nature of these past elements offers a comforting contrast to the unpredictability of the present.

Nostalgia? No, “nowstalgia”.

(Credit: Аlex Ugolkov via Pexels)

Gen Z’s approach to nostalgia is unique. Unlike previous generations that might look back several decades, Gen Zs also feel nostalgic for relatively recent times. Coined in this article by BBC, this phenomenon is referred to as “nowstalgia”.

This can include memories from just a few years ago, highlighting a shift in how nostalgia is experienced and expressed. This compressed timeline is partly due to the fast-paced nature of digital culture, where trends come and go at lightning speed​.

For Gen Zs, the early 2000s represent a period before the rapid technological advancements that characterise their formative years.

(Credit: Yaritza via Pexels)

In times of social and political uncertainty, nostalgia becomes a powerful tool for mental well-being. Going back in time offers Gen Zers a stable anchor in an ever-changing world​.  

Engaging with nostalgic content activates the brain’s reward centres, providing a sense of happiness and security.

Dr Joanne Frederick, a mental health counsellor, highlights that nostalgic activities are a form of self-care that can reduce stress and anxiety, creating a psychological safe haven. 

She also adds that due to the abundance of information that Gen Z can choose to consume, “they lack the shared experiences previous generations had when everyone saw the same commercials, watched the same TV shows, or listened to the same music.” 

This is why shows like Friends are still relevant today, and Typo still restocks Central Perk mugs. It’s also why films like Barbie, Garfield, or the Planet of the Apes series do so well and shows like Stranger Things are intentionally set in the 1980s. 

“It’s not just a phase, Mom!”

The global thrifting market is projected to reach $350 billion by 2027, and we’re no exception to this trend. In Malaysia, thrift stores have embraced the Y2K and retro aesthetic, catering to Gen Z’s love for vintage fashion. 

The appeal of thrift shopping lies not only in its nostalgia but also in its sustainability. Gen Z is acutely aware of environmental issues, and thrifting allows them to make eco-friendly fashion choices while indulging in the styles of past decades​.

READ MORE: Love Shopping on a Budget? Try Thrifting

Vintage shops and flea markets have become cultural hubs where Gen Z can express their individuality while connecting with the past. Old heritage buildings like REXKL, Hin Bus Depot, and Api House are turned into community, art, and cultural spaces to great success.

Old film aesthetic in photography is also experiencing a renaissance. Fuji’s Instax Line makes twice as much as its digital counterpart. Polaroids and disposable cameras are in, despite us having smartphones with 8K cameras.

There’s also a resurgence of interest in traditional batik patterns and fabrics. Young designers are incorporating these elements into modern fashion, creating a unique fusion that resonates with Gen Z.

Despite having cloud storage and Facebook memories, scrapbooking is making a major comeback. In fact, most flea markets or weekend bazaars in KL sell vintage cameras, arts and crafts supplies, or thrift clothing to cater to Gen Zs current interests.

Tick, tock 🕰️

Social media platforms, especially TikTok, have been instrumental in driving the nostalgia trend. 

In 2023, the #WesAnderson trend that took TikTok by storm amassed over 2.6 billion views. Anderson’s aesthetic is reminiscent of the past, where minimalism and practical effects reflect a bygone era.


In Malaysia, TikTok has become a cultural phenomenon, with Malaysians spending close to 39 hours per month on the app.

This platform’s popularity is evident in its massive user base (it’s also Malaysia’s second favourite app just after WhatsApp) and the viral trends that frequently emerge from it. 

TikTok challenges and trends often make the old new again.

@syedddmahad Another banger song from my chillhood, we got Kampung boy 🔥 thanks astro ceria for this bop show! #kampungboy #nostalgia #nostalgic #chillhood #chillhoodmemories #astroceria ##tiktokmalaysia #90skids #foryour #growingup #vibing #fyp #foryourpage #dance #content #fypシ #fyppppppppppppppppppppppp #tiktokmalaysia #banger #song ♬ original sound – Syed Mahad

And the thing about TikTok (or any other social media app, really) is that the algorithms are designed to always show you your preferred content. 

So if you watch a lot of nostalgic content, the algorithm takes note and ends up creating “echo chambers” – which is basically the algorithm feeding you back more of these types of content, so you perpetually see these on your feed. This will in turn reinforce your nostalgic preferences so you develop a taste for nostalgic aesthetics in the real world.

As this generation navigates the challenges of the modern world, looking back to the past provides a reassuring anchor and a rich source of identity and community.

By tapping into the emotional and psychological drivers behind this nostalgia, we can create meaningful connections and foster a deeper understanding of this influential generation.

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