Retro seems to be one of those words whose meaning has changed as I’ve gotten older. It’s a vague term that means it’s not old enough to be an antique, and not even old enough to be vintage. But how old is retro?

Retro refers to the recent past. That’s a little vague but generally means it’s old and probably obsolete, but probably less than 20 years old.

Retro vs recent and popular

how old is retro?

Arguably some of the board games in this image are retro, and others may be vintage.

When I was in college, the college radio station would do a retro hour, often over the DJ’s protests. That music was generally 10-15 years old. But in the mid 90s, that cutoff made some sense. Music that was much older than 1980 was a different genre, and got tons of airplay further up the dial anyway. Retro was the no-man’s land between classic rock and popular music.

Today when we apply it to more than just music, retro is the no-man’s land between what’s recent and what’s vintage. And it seems to me that I’ve probably been misusing the term. That’s very Gen X of me. The most brilliant explanation I’ve ever heard of Gen X came from one of my classmates who said we still think the 90s just happened.

Strictly speaking, 80s and 90s stuff isn’t retro anymore. It’s vintage. As much as I howl that the B-52s don’t belong on the oldies station, going by the book they actually do.

And that probably means I should stop calling Commodore computers retro. They’re vintage. Maybe a Pentium 4 running Windows XP doesn’t seem like it should be retro, but going by the book it is.

Retro is anything related to pop culture or fashion that’s no longer popular or current, but less than 20 years old. The difference between retro and junk is how much of a cult following it has. If it has one, it’s retro. If not, it’s just junk.

How much is retro stuff worth?

That’s the rub with retro. It’s old and obsolete but still common enough that it isn’t all that hard to find yet. People my age lament there was a time we could cruise around town for a couple of hours and find a complete Commodore 64 setup and pay $15 for it. But that was in 1997. I can still find computers in thrift stores, or in the basements of estates and pay less than $20 for it. But it’ll be a Pentium 4, more often than not.

Retro means it’s old enough that someone might be interested in it, but it’s probably not terribly valuable. I don’t speak for today’s twentysomethings, but when I was in my 20s, my buddies and I collected retro stuff because we barely made $12 an hour and that was all we could afford. That’s probably still the case today. Being able to go out and dig and find something cool and spend less than $20 is the appeal. So is having people a little older than you shake their heads and wonder what you see in that.

Actually that’s plenty true of vintage stuff too. It’s just that the price tends to be higher. Sometimes much higher.

But for a lot of people, retro is just a synonym for outdated and no longer cool. Don’t worry. It’ll come back.

Other words you’ll see in conjunction with retro

There are any number of other words you might see used in the same places and settings. You may see something touted as collectible. All that means is the person who wrote the label thinks other people collect that stuff. They might be right. But conductibility is in the eye of the beholder.

Period means that something came from a specific point in time. If an item is advertised with period accessories, it means those accessories came from the same timeframe, they haven’t been replaced with modern equivalents.  Period-correct accessories and add-ons for whatever retro stuff you’re into is going to get harder to find as time wears on, so if retro is what you like, my advice to you is to not forget the period small stuff.

Vintage is older than retro. It could mean 20 or 25 years old, up to 99 years old.