Those who grew up in the Nineties will have fond memories of Tamagotchis, flip phones and collecting VHS tapes. All of that is about to be revived this week with the reboot of That ’70s Show. The coming-of-age sitcom set in Seventies Wisconsin – and which made stars of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis – is now Netflix’s That ’90s Show, a spin-off slash sequel. Set two decades later – and following the children of the original cast – the show takes viewers on a nostalgia trip back to the Nineties, complete with denim flares, plaid and pagers.
It couldn’t arrive at a most nostalgic time. But despite Gen Z’s efforts to resurrect Nineties fashion trends – see the many video compilations on TikTok of “outfits inspired by Nineties icons” – the decade is firmly left in the past when it comes to how we spend our time. Monumental shifts in technology have changed how we communicate with our friends, families and even strangers, and no fondness for lava lamps and inflatable furniture is going to convince people to go fully backwards.
There are, however, at least a few things that real Nineties kids did that TikTok teens would be appropriately jealous of. With all of that in mind, we’ve curated a list of things young people did in the Nineties that most modern teenagers would never want to experience, as well as a few things they’d kill for.
1. Leave the house without a phone
Anybody leaving the house without their mobile in 2023 would be presumed to be taking a “mental health walk”. In short, being phoneless in 2023 is seen as a revolutionary act akin only to self-care. Teenagers of the Nineties, though, would meander around the streets with no portable device in their hand; just a sense of direction and a time to be home for tea.
2. Memorise your best friend’s mobile numbers
Nineties kids would train themselves to memorise their best friend’s landline, just so they could call them at any time of the day, using any public phone they could find. Today, teenagers might know maybe two mobile numbers by heart – their own and their mum’s, perhaps. Our phones can store thousands of numbers, why bother trying to remember your BFF’s digits?
3. Knock on your best friend’s door to see if they want to hang out
There was nothing more nerve-wracking, frankly. Nine out of 10 times your friend’s parents would say yes, but still. Life was spontaneous that way.
4. Queue up outside HMV for the latest CDs
Musicians in 2023 tease album announcements weeks ahead of their actual release dates, launching huge social media campaigns to remind their fans to stream their new material online when it finally comes out. Nineties teens would use that time to prepare for major queueing stints – outside HMV, or Woolworth’s, patiently waiting for one of the shop’s staff to unload the week’s box of cassette singles. Really, being a young person in the Nineties was all about stamina.
5. Showcase said CDs in a tower in the corner of your bedroom
Remember that grey-toned metal CD stand, which oddly resembled a dish rack? Saturday afternoons would be spent ordering your CD cases, colour-coding them and storing them in a futuristic CD tower, which you’d perch in the corner of your bedroom with pride. Now, inevitably, teenagers’ music libraries exist on Spotify and Apple Music – mere blobs on your phone screen. And those CD towers? Gathering dust in an attic somewhere. Or, more likely, at the bottom of a landfill.
6. Buy an entire album just for one song
Imagine being at a friend’s house and hearing an amazing deep-cut on a Destiny’s Child album, only to discover it’s not been released as a single. There’s no Spotify or YouTube. There’s not even a Napster yet. The only way to hear it again is to blow your pocket money on the album itself – that’s 15 whole pounds! No wonder every Nineties musician is practically a billionaire now.
7. Write “58008” on the calculator and turn it upside down…
Hearing your teacher say “You’ll need your calculators for this” meant one thing and one thing only: a chance to type inappropriate words on the screen. In the Nineties, absolutely nothing was funnier than the word “boobs”, let alone an opportunity to covertly spell it using school-sanctioned equipment. Kids today with their laptops and calculator apps honestly don’t know what they’re missing.
8. Spend Saturdays at the shopping mall
It didn’t matter how much pocket money you had, or even if it was raining outside: going to the shopping mall with your friends was for aimless mooching. Think how teenagers would meet up with their friends in Mallrats, or Mean Girls, or Clueless. By the huge escalators, of course. Now, as we witness the death of the high street, online shopping has snatched this mindless pastime away from today’s youngsters. And clicking new clothes to add to your Asos basket just isn’t a two-person activity, you know?
9. Make a romantic mixtape
The ultimate sign of devotion in the Nineties was to make a mixtape for your crush. The task involved recording songs into a cassette tape, then maybe adding a voiceover in between tracks for added romance. In a similar – but much less arduous – romantic gesture, teenagers today can craft tailor-made Spotify playlists for each other and send them to friends and lovers via message. Doesn’t feel as effortful, though, right?
10. Get an unserious email address
Creating a gimmicky email address along the lines of email@example.com was a rite of passage for Nineties and Y2K teenagers. These days, teenagers know that you have to use an email address for almost everything you do – signing up for social media accounts, online shopping, applying for jobs. It’s no longer a novelty. So, like much of modern life, it’s just not all that fun any more.
‘That ’90s Show’ is streaming on Netflix now