Here We Go Again!

A look into the pattern of popular culture trends through the thirty-year cycle.

Retro. Vintage. Nostalgic. Have you ever noticed that trends seem to come back, swarming in as modern-day interpretations of what was once popular?

Take the modern-day global obsession with all things Y2K. From a global obsession with halter tops to lots and lots of color, this style mirrors fashion trends once found in the 1970s, roughly thirty years prior to its debut. Similarly, shows published in the early 2000s that reflect aspects of the groovy era—such as That 70s Show—reached widespread popularity. So, what is this cycle? Where do we see it? And how can you use it to your own advantage?

The thirty-year cycle, as studied by journalist Patrick Metzger, is a cultural pattern in which popular culture trends return thirty years after their original debut. According to Metzger, the driving force behind this cycle is that “people who were consumers of culture when they were young become the creators of culture in their adulthood,” meaning that the professionals determining today’s trends draw significant influence from what they considered popular in their youth. By this logic, the 1970s influenced the early 2000s; the 1980s the 2010s; the 1990s the 2020s.

Clearly, the 1980s had a stark impact on popular culture in the 2010s. We can see this through Hollywood revivals of films and shows originally published thirty years prior, such as RoboCop, 21 Jump Street, and Footloose. Furthermore, its impact is apparent in the re-emergence of fashion trends, including oversized women’s blazers, scrunchies, and colorful clothing.

Let’s take a deeper look at the impact of the 1990s on the 2020s. For starters, today’s obsession with the 90’s supermodel look reflects the findings of Metzger’s thirty-year-cycle. Additionally, television shows that take place on the brink of the millennium, such as Fresh off the Boat, That 90’s Show, and Mortal Kombat, have reached widespread success and popularity.

Beautifully enough, this cycle allows us as consumers to bask in the nostalgic aspects of reliving the past, whether or not we were actually present or alive for the initial exposure of those revived. For instance, with the release of popular Netflix original Stranger Things, high schoolers and even younger individuals were able to embrace the feel of the 1980s, despite the fact they may not understand the gravity of the nostalgia in the same way older generations may.

However, this cycle, while predictable, has proven not to be perfectly exact. Specifically, re-emerging trends sometimes stray from the traditional thirty-year period, with some gaining popularity more or less than exactly three decades. For example, you may already observe the influence of the early 2000s on today’s popular culture, despite the fact that it has been merely twenty years since the former period. Otherwise, the results are generally consistent.

Overall, Metzger’s cycle is a pattern based on the predictable reminiscence of popular culture. By using our knowledge of what was trendy in past years, we can expect athleisure, butterfly clips, and “COVID-core” to take the world by storm in the 2050s. However, while we can acknowledge a reemergence of these trends, it is important to note that each revival is not exactly copy-pasted from its original debut, but rather used as inspiration. While we may expect certain trends to reappear, they will likely be uniquely interpreted and curated for each generation.

Thus, by understanding this cycle, its timing, and its application, we can be ahead of the curve. Setting trends based on what we already know is coming—embrace the nostalgia of this reality.