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November 4, 2022

From Chalk to Creme: The Millenial Nostalgia Crunch

Bradley Eshbach

Nostalgia article.

My wife and I opened a general store this summer. You can think of it as an independent department store, a little bit of everything for anyone. One of the big draws is our candy. We did a bunch of surveys, and we’re figuring out what were the most nostalgic candies in America. What do people miss?

In classic general store fashion, I knew that old baby Boomer classics like Necco wafers would be crowd favorites. Millennials aren’t beating down the door to chew on these chalky discs. But, like clockwork, they add them to the cart. It’s a $1 ticket to decades past.

“That’s what grandma used to give me.”

“Remember church each week when dad gave us these?”

“You’ve got to try these, they are gross.”

What I didn’t anticipate was that nearly everybody who buys a roll of Necco Wafers will also pick up the Creme Savers sitting right next to them.

Necco Wafers were introduced in 1847.

Creme Savers debuted in 1996.

112 years separate these two products; And for some reason, people born around ~ 1980–1995 buy these two items together more than any other candy combination.

What’s going on?

It’s not just candy. Think about Entertainment. Music, movies and TV have all seen waves of nostalgic content in recent years. My Gen X brother-in-law is very confused by my 10-year-old niece’s new obsession with 80’s music from his youth. Answer: Stranger Things. The entire MCU started as a nostalgia play with Iron Man in 2008. And the biggest movie of 2019, Avengers: Endgame, was one long victory lap of nostalgia for the entire Marvel franchise.

Today, it sometimes feels like our entire culture is being threatened by being locked in the Disney Vault. We’re easily triggered by any chance to tap into some innocent wonder of the past or with a threat of something beloved going away for good.

And people love it.

There’s science behind the allure of nostalgia. In fact, a whole field of study called “nostalgiaology” has cropped up to explore the phenomenon.

Why do we love nostalgia so much?

There are a few reasons. First, it’s a form of escapism. In a world that’s ever-changing and often stressful, it’s nice to take a break in a simpler time. It’s a way to ground ourselves in something familiar.

Second, nostalgia is associated with positive emotions. It’s a mental shortcut to happy times. When we think about the past, we tend to focus on the good stuff and filter out the bad.

Finally, nostalgia gives us a sense of social connectedness. When we share stories about the past, we bond with others who have similar experiences. It’s a way to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

Millennials are caught in the middle.

What does life feel like when little of commercial art feels new? When no piece of culture feels novel? What happens when all pop-culture references are self-referential?

Those feelings, recognizable to most Millenials, are the results of what I call the Millennial Nostalgic Squeeze.

From above, the leading edge of the baby boom turned 70 this year, and as they have aged, they’ve been selling their big suburban houses (where they fought to slow new construction) and moving to smaller ones, often in places with lower taxes and cheaper housing. This squeeze has made it difficult for most Millennials to replicate the same story for themselves only a few decades later. To really run it in, they have yard signs stating things like “I miss the America I grew up in”. Boomers, by and large, project the idea that everything in culture has been on the decline since right about when they started birthing… Millennials.

From below, another weird thing is happening. If you look at TikTok, it can feel like Generation Z is nostalgic for times they didn’t experience it. Y2K fashions. Pre-9/11 American Idealism. Even throwback references to shows like Saved by the Bell that was popular when Millennials were kids. It’s a form of “nostalgia tourism,” where people experience things they missed out on the first time around.

The millennial generation is in a critical moment.

They’re raising their kids and relieving the childhood experiences they hold most through their eyes.

They’re helping their parents enter their golden years and the process that comes with it.

They’re assessing their successes, learning from their failures, and trying to imagine their next decade in a time when next year feels less than certain.

I think the popularity of the Mandela effect (a meme that asserts that we are living in a simulation and our memories are being collectively changed in order to… control us?) is a direct result of having an entire generation have your childhood play back to them over and over until reality is indistinguishable from the remix. Prequels and sequels happen at the same time.

Back to the Candy

When asked why they bought the Necco wafers, it’s because their grandmother used to slip a few to them on the way to church. They want to share the flavor with their own kids to see if they are, in fact, as gross as they remember. Nostalgia through parental torture. Classic.

When asked about the Creme Savers, it’s the opposite: When Millennials see that we sell Creme Savers (a candy not manufactured for nearly a decade, starting in 2011), they feel the need to tell every person they have ever met. “Did you know these were back?!”

Nostalgia Triggers Action

Nostalgia is a powerful force in modern culture. So obviously, marketers are going to try to leverage it. It’s a potent way to turn recollections into actions.

Successful campaigns go beyond the obvious: “Hey do you remember this thing? Well, you can buy it again.”

Instead, work to unlock the core of why a 40-year-old would be excited to find an old favorite on the store shelf.

Instead, try this:

  • “For 20 years, you haven’t been able to hold a can of Surge; now you can show your son.”
  • “I remember this from my childhood, I want to reconnect to the younger me.”
  • “I remember this from camp, I want to reconnect with others who remember it as well.”