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Golden Age Thinking - is it fallacy, or a useful coping mechanism?

Updated: Jan 24

If the return of Gladiators to Saturday night TV has got you feeling all nostalgic about the 90s, you’re not alone.

More so in the last few weeks than ever, I’ve been seeing subtle nods to this ‘golden’ era pop up on social media. Influences torn between appreciating the virtues of digital age, but longing for simpler times.

I can safely say I’m with them in their indecision. Some days, I’m grateful for the convenience of this touch-of-a-button existence, which has taken the actual ‘running’ out of many modern-day errands (shopping, banking... communicating!)

Other days, I just want to time-hop back to the Teasmade days when reading the back of the cereal packet was the height of breakfast-time entertainment. When everyone shopped in C&A, shellsuits were cool, eyeshadow was either blue or turquoise, crimpers were a non-negotiable …and soft drinks didn’t taste like chemicals!

It’s open to debate, of course, whether this era was actually as superior-to-now as I think it is, or whether there’s a bit of ‘Golden Age Thinking’ skewing the trajectory of this post.

Golden Age Thinking is ‘the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present’ - a quote lifted from the 2011 Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris!

With my objective hat on, I can accept there may be some truth in this theory, and perhaps a degree of misremembering when I venture to suggest this decade epitomised the ‘good old days.’

For evidence of this often-forgotten and less-than-glamorous side to the nineties, you need only look back to the fear that prevailed regarding that since-healed (I think) hole in the ozone layer. The threats of acid rain. The hefty economic downturn. The cars without seatbelts. The absence of basic health and safety standards (I’ll never forget the fan my Nan had with a ‘protective’ grate so wide you easily touch the spinning blade. If you wanted to. And of course what curious, fearless 6 year old wouldn’t!!)

Some would argue, of course, that this situation has now gone too far in the other direction, but it really depends, I guess, on which particular nuance of the now-watertight health and safety framework you are looking at, who you are asking, and in what context!

Ask a 40 year old with their rose tints on, whether schools were better before the 7 foot high fences were installed, and they’ll no doubt regale you of tales of sneaking to the corner shop at break time, and wondering off-campus at leisure!

It makes for great reminiscence, I’ll admit, but in terms of whether school was actually 'better' that way, I’m on the fence (no pun intended.)

The reason for this, is that in junior school, in year 6 I believe, there was an 'incident.' My class was left unattended at the end of the day, and as we waited patiently for the bell - coats ready on, chairs on top of desks - an intruder walked in!

Turns out, he was the husband of the school PE teacher, who was so enraged at having discovered that our teacher had been having an affair with HIS wife, that he had set out in pursuit of a confrontation!

As luck and fate would have it, Mr Whatshisname (changed for anonymity) wasn’t there, but 30 frightened ten year olds were, and were understandably left wondering a) what the bejuses was going on and b) what even was an ‘adulterer' (such was the ‘word of the day’ he decided to ALLCAPS onto the chalk board, before leaving in a cloud of red smoke!!)

THIS…well, it's probably as good as any testament to the importance of fences in schools, but still, the misty-eyed part of my mind tells me the 'prison aesthetic' is a shame.

Before I move swiftly onto something more light-hearted, I should probably point out that it goes without saying - there are many other hallmarks of this time period (particularly in terms of attitudes and behaviours) that equally haven’t aged well.

It would probably take too long to list them all, but if a post-natal Posh Spice being interviewed by Chris Evans on Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush doesn’t leave you thanking god the 90s are gone, then nothing will!

In spite of the nineties' intolerable cruelties, it still boasts just enough redeeming features to feed the perhaps-fallacy that things were, indeed, better thirty years ago.

Among these key selling points, is the seeming ‘normality’ and simplicity of the 90s aesthetic.

For evidence of this, you only need to watch a music video from this time, and witness how refreshingly un-plump the celebrities lips are, and how rebelliously un-fixed their teeth are.

Peruse concert footage from this time, and the audience will all be looking directly at the stage. No phones. No apparently compulsion to ‘capture’ the experience, or gather evidence of it for social media fodder! They’ll probably be mostly sporting Fruit of the Loom t-shirts and 501s, whilst pulling off a ‘look of the day’ that has yet to become a thing, let alone evolve beyond the parameters of a bit of Cover Girl mascara and a slick of the Body Shop’s kiwi lipbalm.

What a joy, to be so low-maintenance!  To be so unshackled from the ‘process’ that make up and fashion has become.

None of this is to suggest that confidence came easier in the days before fillers and filters. It didn’t, and the more I talk about this with my fellow 40 year old peers, the more I’m convinced being uncomfortable in your own skin is a natural consequence of navigating that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.

In defence of the 90s, none of this came with a pressure to ‘show up’ online.

In defence of now, boundaries have been put in place to respect the need for privacy and autonomy at this time, which can soften the blow of at least some of the physical and emotional changes.

I discovered this hint of ‘progress’ when revisiting my old school recently (since this is now where my daughter does gymnastics.)

The changing rooms, once open plan with communal showers that we were forced to run through naked - they've now been redesigned into separate cubicles snd private showers, making them not just appropriate to the needs of the demographic using them, but almost pleasant!

It’s examples like this that remind me to not get too carried away with my ‘the world was better then’ narrative. Some things have clearly improved, but one thing that hasn't, without doubt, is the always-on default that I don’t think anyone ever really saw coming.

With the dawn of 'push notifications' and the mainstreaming of ‘on demand', the art of waiting has been lost, along with the gift of delayed gratification, and our brain chemistry has been rewired accordingly!

In hindsight, I think the impatience I felt waiting for my favourite weekend TV programmes (the Borrowers, Gladiators.. to name but a few) - it might have actually been anticipation. Back then, you couldn’t fast forward the ads, or skip to the next episode. You had to wait. And then wait some more.

All this, I’m convinced, boded better for the human attention span, than the current situation where we’ve technically eliminated boredom, by making it possible to bypass any and all barriers to entertainment.

Some days, I miss the test card girl and her creepy clown toy!

I miss my flip phone, whose snapping shut was a statement of intent.

In the interests of balance, I should probably point out, that there were still technological ‘distractions’ in the offline age. I can distinctly remember the hours upon hours spent playing Tetris, Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt.

I guess the difference is, that these chunks of time - however much they risked square eyes and a sore neck - they didn't weigh quite so heavy on the mind, as the cumulative effect of all that check-checking of devices, much of which we don't notice were doing, it's so automatic.

In glamorousing the 90s somewhat, my aim has not been to airbrush out its challenges. However, I stand by my belief that there is much about this decade that we could do with copying and pasting into our current lifestyle blueprint.

By the same token, however, digging through the past for the stability that is lacking in the present - it might not be the only or best answer. After all, the healing salve of nostalgia can inevitably only go so far. Also there is a wide margin for actually making life more difficult, when basing present-day decisions around the logic of 'if it worked back then...'

(I'm pretty sure those petroleum-heavy kiwi lip balms would be pretty disappointing now, by today's standards.)

With this in mind, what is the solution to injecting more of the essence of the 'good old days', in the comparatively less-rosy veins of 2024? far as I can glean, this is one of those classic cases of 'answers on the back of a postcard!'

How very 90s!

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