Even the Nostalgia Was Better in the Old Days

I just turned 46 years old and I’ve turned into my father. I catch myself thinking or saying “back in my day” and “things were so much better back then.” But you know what? That’s nonsense. Paul Waldman writes about this phenomenon and rightly says that what we’re really remembering is not how great things were then, but the fact that we were young:

No, no, no. The ’80s wasn’t “the last time the world was simple.” The ’80s was the last time when your world was simple. Can you guess why? Because you were a child!

I’m not the first person to say this (see below) but when you’re a child the world is simple and innocent. Your parents take care of feeding and clothing and housing you, and if you’re lucky the biggest problem you have is what you’re going to get for your birthday. But your world only looked like the world because children are naive. That’s part of what makes childhood wonderful, but once you grow up you should come to an understanding of what it was and what it wasn’t.

About 20 years ago, my best friend was moving and my dad and I helped him, along with his father. They were moving to a house on Celery street and during a break for lemonade and iced tea, our two dads actually had a conversation about how the celery tasted so much better when they were growing up. I turned to my best friend and said, “Even the nostalgia was better in the old days. *sigh* Boy, you could really reminisce back then.” And they may well have been right that the celery tasted better back then. But that wasn’t really the point.

Every generation does this. My dad destroyed my little brother’s Two Live Crew CD when he heard it. And his dad likely complained about Elvis and his dangerous swiveling hips. And his dad hated that his kids were listening to jazz, which would lead to marijuana. Lather, rinse, repeat with every generation. The next generation is always viewed as lazy, disrespectful, ill-mannered. And things were always better “in the old days.” Except they weren’t.

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  • Sastra

    And things were always better “in the old days.” Except they weren’t.


    Except for the things that were, of course.

  • sigurd jorsalfar

    The olden days – they were the best of times, they were the worst of times.

  • matty1

    I find it interesting that as an example of someone who has fallen for this he has a quote from a TV producer that includes “Today the whole notion of family is a bit different: You can reach out and if you don’t get any support at home, you can find a like-minded family on blogs or on Facebook.” and seems to imply that things were better because of this.

    I do understand concerns about how digital interaction is not always a substitute for actually meeting someone. but the idea that not having the option is preferable is just shit. Some people don’t get on well with their family or school, they may be gay or atheist, or have any one of a gazillion other things that get them labelled as different and not wanted. In the past these people had to wait to grow up before they could seek out others who sympathised with and supported them and often not even then. Many may have been trapped with those who despised them by economic necessity.

    Now there is an alternative, the teenager who finds it hard to talk to people they see in real life can log on and seek out communities of people they have something in common with, they can know that they are not unique in their experience and make the contacts that will improve their chances as adults of building the life they want.

  • coragyps

    Attributed to Will Rogers (who has been gone for quite a few years now):

    “Things ain’t like they used to be. And they never was.”

  • I was just talking about this with a friend yesterday. When I was a kid in the 1970s we have a series of power cuts because of the miners’ strikes going on in the UK at the time. To us kids they were great deal of fun, but to my parents they were a real pain in the neck.

    And remember the time when conservatives are always hearkening back to the 1950s as the Golden Age? Of course these days, that’s been replaced by the 1980s, when Reagan was in power, reality be damned.

  • Alverant

    I turn 40 next month and I hear ya. It’s when “when I was your age” stops being an ironic joke and starts being serious. Or maybe it will be when I turn 50.

    So what will the next generation and the one after that listen to that will make us want to pull out our hair and rant about how music “these kids” listen to is crap just like our parents said about our music?

    Now I’m wondering when children’s shows will contain swear words. It’s not like they haven’t heard them before.

  • cuervodecuero

    I applaud people who had a great childhood that let them grow up with shiny memories. Maybe it lets them contrast those good times with the crap others went through and inspires them to make times better for everyone.

    In too many conversations, I hear about shiny happy olden days and realize there was some major blind privilege involved that nowadays intensely dislikes finding out others prefer the Now Days way better than the Then Days.

  • beezlebubby

    Ed, do I ever have a book for you!


    Very interesting. There’s an exploration into how there was a lower percentage of children living in a “traditional” 2-parent household in the 1950s than in the 1990s. The author also discusses women’s right, spousal abuse, child abuse, child sexual abuse, etc., and many, many other metrics that paint a convincing picture that things were most certainly NOT better in the past.

  • beezlebubby

    Dammitt! That wasn’t the book I was thinking of, though it looks good…for kids.

    THIS is the book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Way-Never-Were-Nostalgia/dp/0465090974/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1383332653&sr=8-1&keywords=%2B+the+way+we+weren%27t+%2B+coontz

  • MyPetSlug

    I self consciously never say things “used to be better”. Even in my adult life, things have gotten so much better. How the fuck did we live without GPS, the internet, and cell phones? Seriously, I used to get lost all the time going anywhere new. And when my kids were just born every tiny little symptom they had I could look it up and find out if I should worry. Now, my wife can Skype with her parents in Taiwan, on the other side of the fucking planet, basically for free, which should be mind blowing. Even when I was in high school, a regular phone call to Taiwan would be, what, like $.25 a minute? Not to mention almost everything in our lives is cheaper and safer than when I was a kid. The list of improvements in our lives just in the last 20 years is innumerable.

  • felidae

    The technical term is: nostalgia for the never was

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Dunno ’bout the celery, but the quality of (store-bought) tomatoes has definitely nose-dived.

    I liked the old bananas better, too.

  • Things were indeed better, back in the good old days. Or, at least, some things were better for some people.

    The trouble is that we look back, we only see the things that were better, and we see ourselves as one of the special people for whom they were better. We don’t pay attention to the things that were worse. And we don’t look at it from the vantage of the average person of that time.

    So, yes, I can look back and see how much better things were. But I am seeing myself as a prince, not as a pauper. And I am assuming that I still have a modern automobile, back then before they had been invented.

  • tmscott

    Yogi Berra said it best:

    “Nostalgia ain’t what it use to be.”

  • Alverant


    I saw the book and read some of the reviews. It sounds like those who gave 1 star were the people described in #8 and were now mad about how “liberals” have destroyed everything. I found the comment about how liberals caused dysfunctional families amusing since conservative families are more likely to end in divorce.

  • Alverant

    I remember going back and watching DVDs of cartoons I watched while growing up and thinking, “Wow, these really were half hour commercials for toys.”

  • Alverant “I remember going back and watching DVDs of cartoons I watched while growing up and thinking, ‘Wow, these really were half hour commercials for toys.'”

    To be fair, cars and planes that turn in to robots is pretty awesome.

  • jefferylanam

    Pierce R Butler: “I liked the old bananas better, too.”

    This, at least, has a basis in history. Nearly all the bananas we eat today are the Cavendish variety. Its predecessor, the Gros Michel, was nearly wiped out in the 1950s. It is said to have a stronger fragrance than the Cavendish. Someday we may be longing for the Cavendish bananas, as they are now threatened.

  • caliban

    While I intellectually recognize that things weren’t glorious in my/our past, the more I explore past decades, the more jewels I discover that I didn’t know about or had vaguely known about but was too young to appreciate.

    I’m 44, and I confess I often find myself feeling “nostalgic” over things that occurred decades before I was born: Music, clothes, furniture (now antiques), old books; glorious middle-class homes of stone and brick and stained glass made several decades past that while less energy efficient, are fucking castles of charm compared to the much cheaper, character-less abodes made for today’s masses.

    And politically, many of the factors that contributed heavily to the creation of our middle class: high taxes on the wealthy, strong unions, large government infrastructure projects, living wages, etc are definitely some things that I’m now feeling misty eyed for.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    jeffreylanam @ # 19 – I have a historical basis for my claim about tomatoes, too.

    Sometime in the 1970s, researchers at the University of California finalized development of a mechanical tomato-harvesting system (no more of those pesky farmworkers to put up with!). Creating the machine that picked the fruit was the easier part; it took longer to breed tomatoes tough enough to endure such handling without rupture.

    The specification required tomatoes that would not burst when dropped from four feet above the floor. In one of his finest moments ever, Ralph Nader calculated the speed at which an object would fall four feet and announced, with supporting detail, that tomatoes had higher impact resistance standards than did automobile bumpers.

  • Alverant

    #18 Definitely

    The cartoon I was thinking about was COPS. In the second season some characters were only seen in one episode (one just had a single scene) so the company could say they’ve been on the show. It wasn’t as bad as the first season though but there were still moments where I thought, “OK let’s plug the toy again”.

  • suttkus

    Nostalgia WAS better in the old days. Not this afternoon, I got thinking about a song I really liked from my youth in the 80’s and looked it up on YouTube. Turns out, the song sucked. Nostalgia ruined. In the old days, you could bask in the ignorance of selective memory uninterrupted by pesky reality.

  • Sastra

    If you think about it, the whole Garden of Eden idea is just an idealized version of a perfect childhood, one where everything was simple and you were taken care of.

  • My hair was better back in the old days. For one thing, I had some. That’s not nostalgia. That’s fact. Sure, twenty years from now I’ll be nostalgic about the Rene Levesque I’ve got now, but that’ll only be because by then I’ll be forced to move to a Donald Trump.

  • As the daughter of back-to-the-lander hippy types, I seem to have avoided this fate, because… who would be nostalgic for kerosene lamps, wood stoves, outhouses and having to haul your own water? I had a good childhood but I wouldn’t want to live there. =D

  • The author also discusses women’s right, spousal abuse, child abuse, child sexual abuse, etc., and many, many other metrics that paint a convincing picture that things were most certainly NOT better in the past.

    In many cases when people talk about how much better things were Back Then, whether they realize it or not, it’s the erosion of white male privilege that they’re whining about. If you think it’s better that men can no longer beat their children and rape their wives, you’re not one of these people.

  • Brain Hertz

    I was just talking about this with a friend yesterday. When I was a kid in the 1970s we have a series of power cuts because of the miners’ strikes going on in the UK at the time. To us kids they were great deal of fun, but to my parents they were a real pain in the neck.

    I remember that vividly too. My reaction to it, though, was a bit different; I distinctly remember being constantly scared shitless that we might be plunged into darkness at any minute…

  • dickspringer

    I recently saw a poll in which people were asked whether our society was better in the 1950’s than now. A sizable majority of white southerners agreed, a far larger proportion than for any other group.

  • uzza

    Childhood Leukemia. Polio. Dentistry.

  • vmanis1

    I will content myself with remembering that when I was in Grade 8, the Beatles came to world attention. Our (public) high school, Kitsilano Secondary School, had an official policy that Beatle haircuts were not permitted, because they were too licentious.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  • Rip Steakface

    Ed, is your birthday November 1?

    If so, that means you and my dad are exactly the same age. Fancy that.

  • Nick Gotts

    And politically, many of the factors that contributed heavily to the creation of our middle class: high taxes on the wealthy, strong unions, large government infrastructure projects, living wages, etc are definitely some things that I’m now feeling misty eyed for. – caliban@20

    This. But many other things are better now, particularly for women, ethnic and gender-sexual minorities. Far more people (especially women) are literate, life expectancy has increased (particularly in poor countries), and the rate of population growth has approximately halved in the past half-century. Over the past 20 years, both crime (at least in rich countries) and war deaths appear to have fallen. At 18, my son has perfect teeth – I already had a mass of fillings at that age.

    However, I do sometimes feel that I’ve been living in an SF novel since the 1980s – I was 25 at the start of 1980. AIDS was the start of it – not just a mind-numbingly horrible, tragic epidemic, but a thoroughly bizarre one, in many ways completely unlike any previously known disease. The end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, which seemed like permanent fixtures throughout my childhood and youth. The internet and the web, of course. The ozone hole and climate change. And most recently, the revelation of the extent of the surveillance we’re under.

  • Nostalgia for an age that never existed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kODOHodMqck

  • dogmeat

    Ahhh, the good old days. Like in the fifties when the kikes, niggers, and broads knew their place. When the worker drones would be counted on to drop out of school and get a good drone job in a factory. When only the “right” kind of people could go to proper universities, only “real men” got good jobs, and you could keep “those types” out of your neighborhood. When the commies knew to shut up or lose their jobs and the queers knew to stay in the closet or they’d get what was good for them. Ahh the good old days when cops and judges understood that sometimes boys would just be boys and if a girl got roughed up a bit they understood she really was asking for it. If she got in a “family way” after a little fun, she could be sent away to live with an aunt and knew better than to talk about it because he really is a good boy and he’s going to state next year. If a queer got stomped, or an uppity colored found himself dead, who could really blame a good American for going a bit too far? Everyone had learned a lesson and it wouldn’t happen again.

    I’m not under the illusion that I couldn’t have been brainwashed into thinking all of that was “okay,” I”d like to think that, but know better. All the same, the 2013 me that actually exists wouldn’t last ten minutes in that hellhole.

  • lpetrich

    Yes, nearly 60 years before Miley Cyrus’s twerking, Elvis Presley’s pelvis got a certain fame with similar motions. 😀

  • krubozumo

    I don’t think Elvis “invented” that motion.

    dogmeat –

    the whole game is about indoctrination. Conditioning as well because even though zealots may hate the

    results of some science, they warmly embrace the bits they can use. Consider just for a moment that we, as

    a ‘society’ have invested some trillions of dollars in making better nuclear weapons It would probably be very hard to quantify how much has been invested in “shaping public opinion”. AKA propgaganda.

    What it all boils down to is pretty simple really. You can’t fool nature. Nature does not interpret, it determines.

    It is true that many of my fellow humans are still mired in childhood myths. What time is it where you are?

  • D. C. Sessions

    Funny how this topic comes around from time to time.

    My comment is the same now as it was last time.

  • old fogey… 😉

  • suttkus: If the version of the song you recently listened to had been remastered since the 1980s, it’s quite possible that it sucked but the original didn’t. A side effect of the switch to digital audio is that it became possible to mix recordings a lot louder than you could on analog media (tapes would saturate, and with vinyl the grooves got wider the louder the source material so you couldn’t put as many songs on the record). This turns out to be one of those cases where the fact that you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Mastering engineers began compressing the hell out of everything in order to maximize the loudness and optimize the recordings for playback through cheap earbuds in noisy backgrounds.

    The result is that while modern recordings do a better job of breaking through the traffic noise while you’re waiting for the bus, they’re literally tiring to listen to if you’ve got your full attention on the song. A few years back, some researchers found that Justin Bieber’s second album was objectively louder than either Never Mind the Bollocks or Back in Black. Look up “Campaign for Dynamic Range”. (note that this is not an inherent property of digitization (“chopping music into little pieces”); if you directly transcribed an 80s analog recording to digital, it would sound just as good.)

    dickspringer: Many smaller communities in the South didn’t fully recover from the economic effects of the Civil War until the 1950s (it was the lingering stimulus from WWII that did it).

  • freehand

    I had a friend who spent the morning one day trying to discipline her daughter for behavior which she was secretly sympathetic to (sex, drugs, and rock and roll). She said she realized that she had become both her mother and her daughter simultaneously.

    I was male, white, American, and naive as a kid but I have never looked back on it with nostalgia. As a young adult for a couple of years I owned nothing but the clothes on my back and was far, far, happier than I had been in that fundamentalist household as a child.

  • greg1466

    I have to routinely point out the Paradise Lost fallacy on Facebook.