Dr. Neal Cook, DM, MBA
9 min readSep 2, 2021

The Nostalgia Industry: The Joy of the Past for a Hopeless Future

Robert Heinlein had a quote, and I believe it was in his book “Time Enough for Love,” although I cannot find it at this time that says along the lines that young people live in the future, adults mostly the present, and old people live mostly in the past at which point it is a sign of old age, infirmity, and approaching death. This is not wrong, and it is indicative of the mental status of what an individual is looking forward to. When you have much to look forward to, that is where you live and what you work towards. When there is little to nothing to look forward to, then you live in the past of better times. It is a part of the human condition and expected as we creep ever closer to “… The innumerable caravan, which moves, To that mysterious realm, where each shall take, His chamber in the silent halls of death…” quoting Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” and is natural. But, what does it mean when the majority of an entire generation lives in the past well before their natural time? Welcome to the life of Millennials onwards, living during the fall of a society and, frankly, the fall of ecological stability (for humanity).

Nostalgia has become a huge business over the years with the likes of HasbroPulse (no judgment here, I have a subscription myself), Bigbadtoystore.com, Sideshow, the entire Marvel franchise, the expansion of comic cons, gaming, and so on. Do not get me wrong, I love all the above, and frankly, my Transformers collection is one to envy; but, I do recognize that having a sense of strong nostalgia this early in age is a symptom of a structural problem. To be blunt, it is because deep down, if not at a conscious level, at least a visceral one, I myself, along with many of my generation, know that in most likelihood, we already have our best days behind us unless significant structural changes occur VERY rapidly. Maybe not at a personal level, but at an economic, social, and ecological level. There is a deep anger associated with this that many of us cannot necessarily vocalize or put a finger on why or where it should be directed (and in many cases ends up becoming misdirected), but it is the anger of a stolen future, of having the ability to chose and chart a path for ourselves stolen and unlike in previous centuries this is during a time when we know that there are no natural barriers preventing this, but purely structural and systemic by design.

We really should not be surprised. The United States was founded on the concept of an “ingroup” using “outgroups” for labor or to at least rally the less outgroupish masses against a more outgroupish scapegoat (currently the flavors of the week are Taliban, who we actually trained and armed back in the day, by the way, immigrants, LGBTQ+, Democrats, and Republicans, pick your outgroup to hate). At the start, the ingroup was strictly landowners (read: the wealthy) and later expanded to white men to keep the peace, making the outgroup pretty much every other ethnicity and women (sorry folks). Then expanded again in the form of voting rights. Throughout the history of the U.S., however, regardless of voting rights, actions were taken to reduce the voice and voting impact of these outgroups both directly and indirectly. At this point in time, the outgroup has expanded to the vast majority now primarily starting in 1987 with the death of the fairness doctrine, which was abolished arguing freedom of speech but in reality, was the start of propaganda further segmenting the economic outgroup (pretty much anyone reading this) into outgroups among each other. Really, this is spycraft and social destabilization methods 101. Cause infighting among a group you want to prevent from organizing in order to utilize their resources (in our case, our labor and capital). Goodbye social mobility and hello further polarization of the two-party system. We are totally the WWE of the political world. New bad-guy every season to keep the party going without really accomplishing anything (Trump literally retweeted a WWE clip as a political meme). The U.S. got really good at this game, practicing in South/Central America, Cuba, Haiti, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Afghanistan, really come to think of it, where have we not overthrown popular governments in favor of U.S.-friendly ones? We have at times disposed of democratically elected governments with dictatorships and monarchs…sorry about what happened in 1973, Afghanistan, but we really needed a friendly government there because you know…Russians?… or was it the Opium?… oil???. If anyone is curious, check out “Lies My Teacher Told Me” found here for a quick and very depressing primer. As for a seminal book on social engineering, check out “Addiction by Design,” which is about casino design in Vegas but the science behind this is applied throughout society and can be found here. If you want more information regarding this, please check out my other blog posts discussing social mobility, burnout, and American Exceptionalism, where I provide more references along with some collected data in the social mobility article.

I digress, however, back to the topic at hand. The nostalgia market tells us something about our generation and society at large. Due to increasing costs and stagnant wages, many of us have come to realize that no matter how hard we try, how hard we work, and how well we present ourselves, there is little if anything we can do to improve our situation and direction in life. The costs, where it matters, are simply too high, and with little to no social safety net, what does it matter when one major medical or life event can wipe out a lifetime’s worth of responsible saving and investing? As such, it is an exercise in futility. There is no point in saving for a “rainy day” when that “rainy day” will bankrupt you regardless. Besides, even if we did, the world is literally on fire, flooding, and facing ecological collapse (I used to teach Ecology, so no arguing here). The most infuriating part is that industries knew this over a century ago with warnings beginning in the early 1900s’ and pursued their profits without changing course despite knowing the long-term consequences.

So setting aside the fact that Earth is rapidly becoming unfavorable for human society for a moment and going back to social mobility, real estate is being gobbled up by investment companies and individuals to be turned into rentals to the extent that the prices can be cranked up in a cartel fashion. Hedge funds are including real estate holdings now as an investment instrument and are literally buying out entire subdivisions making homeownership difficult by outbidding individuals in order to profit off rental revenue. There are many articles discussing this, but one can be found here. This further drives up the housing market to the point that it is out of reach for many and further inflating rent prices (which the cost of rent can be about double the cost of what a mortgage would be for a similar property but being on time with rent isn’t considered in a mortgage application…make that make sense).

Continuing on, do not get me started on the cost of college and student loans…no boomer, we cannot work our way through college like you did, tuition is up literally over 300% since you worked your way through school, and that does not even count books and oh yeah….RENT. That does not even take into account that the jobs that we would be working our way through college pays approximately 25% less than yours and many of these places want completely OPEN schedules…and please, make that make sense. Also, note that these are adjusted for inflation. So unless you come from a wealthy family or one that really saved up and has not had a medical emergency yet, it is student loans. Well, go into a vocation, they make great money! A: Some of us, myself included, would enjoy that but physically cannot since most of it requires regular physical labor and some of us have health issues, and B: what happens if the market becomes flooded with vocational workers who took that advice? Wages drop due to the surplus, and the argument is now void. In all reality, working in a vocational field is not going to be feasible for subsequent generations due to automation, and they will find themselves in the same position as a natural sciences degree holder. “You have a Masters in Environmental Biology/Toxicology! That is great; we will start you at $17.45 an hour. If you get perfect ratings, you get an annual 2% raise and a bonus of up to $1,000!” Wait…what? I was making more than that having to dress up as a demeaning parody doing onsite for Geek Squad.

So continuing to use myself as an example, I changed industries again trying to find a livable wage, with the threat of student loans looming overhead and trained and cross-trained, worked multiple jobs and about 180 industry and manufacturer-specific certifications across multiple industries later was making $16.50 an hour with far more responsibility? Wait, something is broken here. I thought if I worked really hard and did good work, I would have it made? What happened? Fine, I will get my MBA and learn the game. Another job, but no promotion even after getting the MBA? Fine, time to go big or go home; I am getting my Doctorate! Which is where I am at now. But let’s be honest. Most likely, it will never afford me the income necessary to pay off my student loans, buy a house, and live in comfort unless I start my own business or get lucky and have a best-selling book (or 10). Even then, however, there is a major luck component involved. Starting a business is extremely risky regardless of how well they are run. The reality is that what we were told growing up was wrong. How hard you work has little to do with success. A good part of it, just like playing slots at the casinos, is strictly luck (of chance and birth). The strategy has little to do with it. The main difference between society and the casino is that in a society, you have to keep playing. For a much more in-depth and well-researched discussion on this topic, check out “America the Farewell Tour” that can be found here. So why continue to educate myself and get credentialed like I have been nonstop since before 2007? At this point, having a terminal degree along with my experience and expertise I hope grants me the mobility to reside in societies that are more progressive and are more pro-science and research. In contrast, in the U.S., where you have people with advanced degrees removing them from their resumes for fear of not being hired due to being “overqualified.” I have known many who have done and have to do this, and my resume when I would apply for jobs would always be seriously cut down to avoid intimidating management…which pretty much says all you need to know about the mess of things and the ironic mockery of the “work really hard, and you can get ahead” mantra pounded into our young skulls. Wait…so I worked too hard, and now I cannot get ahead?!?!?! That’s right, kid, you flew too close to the sun, enjoy your life in retail.

So, where am I going with this? Frankly, I do not know because I have no real solutions that are actually feasible in the sense that society would work together to bring about. The polarization is too deep; the propaganda has done its job too thoroughly. What a lot of people do not realize is that right-wing violence and progressive angst and movements are symptoms of the same disease. It is a society without hope that does not have a future they are looking forward to and needs someone/something to blame. To deal with that, some turn to violence and hate, embracing extremist authoritarian viewpoints and representatives; others, we turn inward, whether it be memes, toys, games, television, drugs, whatever it takes to dull the pain. As for me, I am going to hunker down, take my classes, write my words, and play with my Transformers in my pillow fort.

As always, thank you for your time and attention, my friends,