Zeitgeist Nostalgia: On Populism, Work and the ‘Good Life’, by Alessandro Gandini
Zero Books, 1789044472, 123 pages, December 2020

The social contract has quite rapidly been eroded by advancement in technology, globalization, and neoliberal economic policies of the past few decades. In Zeitgeist Nostalgia: On Populism, Work, and the ‘Good Life’, Alessandro Gandini examines how the result of this transformation has created an age of nostalgia, or wistful, sentimental longing for the past. As societies grapple with the uncertainty of our future, the happy times of the past have become a refuge. The current climate when viewed through this lens of nostalgia offers insight into what has shifted in the past 70 years, lending insight into the present moment in time and offering food for thought about the impact of this sentiment on our future.

Gandini has done a wonderful job in writing Zeitgeist Nostalgia to be the perfect mix of academic research with his own observation and reflections on the state of the world. I admire his attunement to the present moment, and also his clarity of mind to elucidate what is happening, and how we got to the present state we’re in. He presents theories for the future from a range of social theorists and historians, plus techno-economists, that make for a supremely interesting read.

“OK Boomer.” — the recently popularized Tik-Tok phrase to mock the Baby Boomer generation has become all the rage in recent months. The apparent divide between the ages seems to be facilitated by the different cultural events, attitudes, and quite frankly, reality that each group of people was raised within. While the Baby Boomers grew up in the thick of the flourishing of the American Dream, characterized by stable employment, a promise of security, and promotion of mass consumption, the subsequent generations seem to keep getting the short end of the stick as this ideal has disintegrated over the decades.

Currently the millennial generation is finding their job prospects are more irregular and unstable, housing prices are soaring compared to minimum wages, and security is no longer a promise any government can make. The future remains unclear, but Zeitgeist Nostalgia helps to map out these changes with Gandini bringing together the relevant pieces to actually make sense of what the heck is happening in these times of fear and uncertainty felt worldwide.

While many in the younger generations have learned to adapt to this new paradigm, it is the Baby Boomers, who unable to cope with the uncertainty and challenges presented by technological innovation, a falling-out between citizen and government, and progressive values, are turning back to the past when things were more simple. This wave of collective nostalgia sweeping the nation is having social and political effects, ranging from the Brexit vote to the presidency of Donald Trump, with hopes of “taking back control” to eliminate the insecurity faced in the midst of immense change.

At the heart of these populist movements is a desire to return to the “golden age” based upon patriarchy, heterosexual, white norms once upheld and cherished as an ideal. However, a good majority of up and coming generations hold very different values, after seeing the destruction of neoliberal globalization and having a new openness to ways of living that are outside the borders of the traditional “good life,” quite literally in their regard for immigrants. Gandini specifically focuses on events in America and England, but also highlights trends in other areas of the world too to really give a full picture of how this collective nostalgia is playing out globally.

As a millennial myself, I absolutely could relate to Gandini’s writing. I found it immensely relevant to my own personal situation, especially the chapter “ A post-employment society?” which is something I feel I have been doing my best to embody, despite not having a framework for how this future might look. I am constantly noticing which friends of mine are still following along with the traditional American dream (marriage, home ownership, family) and also cherishing my bonds with those who also see the foundation of that society is falling apart, choosing to forge their own path in this new world instead, creating the future as we go.

What I really enjoyed in reading this book was Gandini’s assertion that hipsters are the one who may be doing things the right way. While acknowledging the socio-economic privilege of many hipsters, who are characterized by their vintage looks and discerning tastes, they are focusing less on material capital and relying on cultural capital to get by in the world. At the same hipsters, he asserted, are more focused on sustain processes and authentic outcomes in whatever their domain is, from natural wine connoisseur to old-school butcher, and less on creating products meant for mass consumption.

My former high school boyfriend turned “hipster” in young adulthood chose to forgo higher education and now is thriving brewing beer for a small, family owned and wildly successful brewery in a neighborhood that until the past five years was run-down and in an economic slump. In many ways I’ve envied him making a decent living, pursuing his passion, while I went the traditional route of college and am saddled with student debt comparable to a mortgage with what I’d say about the same job prospects, oftentimes forced to take work just to repay the loans.

The past decade, it’s only become more and more clear to me that we are radically shifting the way we organize our society, from the role technology now has in our daily lives to the acknowledgement that neoliberalism has run its course after the multitude of economic and environmental disasters it has created, though many can still not envision a world without capitalism. We want a change, and we need a change. Without providing a concrete answer, this book helped to broaden my horizons, especially awakening me to the fact these trends I’ve been feeling extend beyond just the United States, notifying me that this is a global ripple that is bound to have far-reaching effects.

Gandini’s academic background clearly shines through this book. He is currently a senior researcher in Digital Sociology at the University of Milan. Formerly, he was a lecturer for Kings College in London. The ideas in Zeitgeist Nostalgia are penetrating, and truly invite the reader to think and do their own research. Gandini fills the pages with his observations, going beyond being merely an academic text. I am impressed with his thorough understanding of history, particularly American history, and amazed at how he seems to clearly have a strong intellectual grasp on the current state of affairs.

I highly recommend Zeitgeist Nostalgia to those with an interest in culture, history, politics, and economics. Gandini has filled the pages with thoughtful social critique backed by plenty of research and anecdotal examples of what he is discussing. Particularly in light of the radical divide between the values of older and younger generations, this book is helpful in understanding how we’ve gotten to this place as a society.

As Gandini points out, waves of nostalgia are common in history in the face of rapid transformation, and often is the forerunner to revolution. Whether salvation comes through the hipsters or not, I certainly know the future crafted by young adults is bound to be centered upon very different societal values. It’s worth thinking about what these values are and how we’d like to see them emerge in the years to come.