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Why People Earnestly Believe They Were Born in the Wrong Time

Is ‘generational dysphoria’ a real condition, or just a way to humblebrag about how cool and different you are?

Whatever else you can change about your life, one thing you can’t do anything about is the time. If you hate where you live, you can move — if you hate when you live, well, tough shit.

Complaints about being born in the wrong era come up a lot online, often in the context of decrying modern culture and yearning for bygone days. Whether it’s memes about being misunderstood, lambasting other “kids of today” spending all their time on their phones or endless YouTube comments on Nirvana videos written by teenagers complaining that music today is bullshit, it’s a common yearning.

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A Quora user struggling with this notion terms it “generational dysphoria,” which seems to give it a grandeur it doesn’t warrant, because, really, is it a condition, or just an affectation? There’s a big difference, after all, between genuinely feeling like you don’t belong in the age you inhabit and just thinking flares look nice, and the vast majority of online laments about being born in the wrong era fall firmly into this latter, pop culture-based camp (and worse than that, most read like the attention-seeking cries of a world-weary teenager who feels they’re above it all). 

”It’s about people trying to make themselves seem unique in crowds that they perceive as full of the same people” says oh_dangit, a moderator of the Le Wrong Generation subreddit, which is dedicated to studying the phenomenon. “People that listen to pop, rap, etc. are all ‘bandwagoners’ compared to the person that takes the time to go listen to older music, in an act of defiance against the common culture that they themselves see in the world.” 

oh_dangit points out that this defiance and quest for individuality often manifests itself in the seeking out of household name artists from a prior generation. “Rather than carving out their own identity by discovering new music to listen to, they’re going and listening to the biggest artists of their parents’ time,” he says.

But the thing about culture is that it self-edits: The good stuff sticks around, so it’s easy to characterize the output of a time period as only the best bits. It’s the Now That’s What I Call Music! version of the past, the cherry-picked, expertly curated greatest hits selection that makes another era seem so appealing. That’s how we end up with the cast of Stranger Things waxing endlessly poetic about the greatness of the 1980s (a period during which none of them were alive, although between Stranger Things, It and Weezer’s “Take On Me” video, it’s becoming harder and harder to remember that Finn Wolfhard is a teenager here and now, in 2019).

The reality, of course, is that the here and now sucks for many people, no matter when that is. Day to day, the eras people pine for were just as boring and crap as the one they’re currently sick of. Look at the music charts for any given week, or the TV schedule for any given day — there’s plenty of completely forgotten garbage in there, and more importantly, completely forgotten garbage that was incredibly popular at the time and that you’d probably have liked, too, if you’d been there. Everyone’s convinced that if they’d been around in 1977, they’d have been at the front of every Sex Pistols show, when the reality is they’d almost certainly have been going to see the Eagles. “I wish I was alive in the 1970s” is not the same thing as, “I wish I was alive in the 1970s and really cool.”

Speaking of the 1970s: Despite being held up as peak 1970s nostalgia fare, Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused doesn’t hold up the 1970s itself as any sort of golden age. As Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) says at one point, “The 1950s were boring. The 1960s rocked. The 1970s, my God, they obviously suck. So maybe the 1980s will be like, radical. […] Hey, it can’t get any worse.” 

It should go without saying that almost any one of us, transported back even a few decades, would find the past to be unimaginably awful. Living in the Swinging Sixties or the Roaring Twenties probably sounds awesome — you get to dress cute! — but it mostly just means foregoing the benefits of a huge amount of life-improving technological and medical breakthroughs. You don’t have to go back that far for things to become utterly dire: Life expectancy among the middle classes in Victorian Britain (i.e., the 19th century) was just 45

But the syphilis, tooth decay and dead-before-middle-age thing aren’t what people fantasize about, of course: It’s the dream of experiencing cultural milestones firsthand, even though the reality is that most people only become aware of the cultural significance of a moment many years later — just try asking the average Italian peasant how enlightened they felt while the Renaissance was actually happening. 

“Versions of a time period we didn’t live through are often characterized by idealized or romanticized attributes,” says psychologist and nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, of Le Moyne College, Syracuse. “Images of a simpler time, before tech dominated our lives, suggest that people were happier then. Such periods are usually portrayed in film or other art forms in biased versions by avoiding the unpleasant, even painful, aspects.” 

For theorists, this sensation of longing for a time you never knew is referred to as either historical nostalgia or vicarious nostalgia. “My research has found that historical nostalgia is associated with cynicism, pessimism and dissatisfaction with at least some aspects of contemporary society,” says Batcho. “Historical nostalgia represents a form of escapism to cope with current anxiety or unhappiness. A person can feel that they don’t ‘fit’ in the values, behaviors and lifestyle of the present.”

Which makes perfect sense: 2019 is a complicated, exhausting time to be alive, and it’s easy to feel like existing at pretty much any other time would be more straightforward. But this idea should be treated as merely a comforting fantasy to get you through the day, hence it’s a little mystifying that some people actually choose to make life much more difficult for themselves in a bid to make it a reality. 

Take Sarah A. Chrisman, for example, a writer who, along with her husband Gabriel, leads as authentically a Victorian a life as she can, the result of a lifelong obsession with the period. Their house in Port Townsend, Washington, is lit with oil lamps and heated with a wood burner, and they dress in a mixture of antique clothing and painstakingly made recreations, right down to Chrisman wearing a corset every day. 

For the couple, it obviously goes far beyond just dissatisfaction with their own time period — Chrisman firmly believes that one can, in essence, identify as a being from another time. “Since mapping began of the human genome and it became possible to trace genetic markers in people’s DNA, a large number of people have been shocked to discover that the culture with which they’ve identified their entire life is not, in fact, the one which is genetically their own,” she says. “Because of this, people are increasingly realizing that culture is more about choice and personal affinities than about predetermined destiny. There are cultures of time as well as cultures of geography. We hope that what we do shows people that everyone is free to choose their own culture, and celebrate their own true identity.”

Tailor Zack Pinsent, who exclusively dresses in Regency fashions that he makes himself, recently told the Guardian: “Modern fashion has never appealed to me. I wanted to look back to a time when things were of a higher quality and wear clothes that would make me stand out. I began wearing late-Victorian and Edwardian stuff bought in vintage shops in Brighton and it made me genuinely happy.” Another man mentioned in the same piece, Kollyn Bailey, is a British civil war reenactor who became so attached to the outfits that he now exclusively dresses like he’s from the 17th century.

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While these are all extreme cases — the Chrismans only use electric lights when they have visitors — there’s something to be said for their commitment. Sitting corseted in the dark is certainly putting a lot more money where your mouth is than a YouTube commenter droning on about how they wish they were around when Zeppelin were at their peak. 

Is it an actual diagnosable condition, though, or just a character trait? “Generational dysphoria isn’t something I’ve ever encountered,” explains Natalie Cawley, counseling psychologist at Principle Specialist Psychological Services. “It’s not included as a clinical condition in the DSM-V or the ICD-10, which are the diagnostic tools used by clinicians.”

Cawley does think — in a general sense, and not any one person’s particular case — that it could be symptomatic of various other unexplored issues. “This might be something explored by someone with an external locus of control. It seems to be a very broad and nonspecific reason to feel dysphoria or apathy. It may be the case that someone idealizes experiences or environments other than their own as they feel hopeless in their own circumstances, but aren’t looking internally as to why this might be.”

Cawley also suggests that it could be an unconscious way of dealing with negative experiences. “It could be a defense against looking at their own personal trauma or struggle, serving as a hook to hang their distress on as it’s too painful to bring to conscious awareness,” she explains. “Or it could be to do with identity and creating a false self — their own identity is disintegrated or some elements are denied, so they identify with a period, era or fantasy about who they could have been if they’d been born into a different situation.”

So while it’s tempting to dismiss giving it such a fancy-schmancy name as “generational dysphoria” — and certainly, an actual dysphoria is a much more serious condition than “I like different music to my friends” — there is an argument to be made that this pining for someone else’s past disguises genuine psychological issues.

Or maybe you just like wearing 17th century trousers.