What were the 1980s like?

There’s a certain nostalgia surrounding the 1980s as a glorious time of neon lights, cool bedroom designs, ill-fitting clothes and weird haircuts. As all perceptions, the time gone by creates a distortion. Saying 40 years later that the 1980s were “so and so” is never thoroughly correct, especially when cherry-picking the most convenient aspects of that decade. The following are a few memories of the 80s as I remember them.

Probably the biggest change from when our parents were kids in the 40s and 50s is the explosion of “things”. Our generation were bombarded with the appearance of plastic objects of all types from digital alarm clocks to He-Man toys to VHS tapes. Our parents also had their share of gadgets in the form of kitchen appliances, televisions and wireless phones.

The Baby Boomers had known a period of austerity similar to their own parents. They had worn boring knitted sweaters, leather shoes and gone on holiday to the local countryside to enjoy the incomparable thrill of collecting dead leaves and pasting them in a book. Or perhaps they caught frogs. Or mosquitoes, who knows?

But for us young consumers, the USA had fully made their way into the European markets and had flooded them with their “things”. BMX bikes, sweatshirts with logos, sports shoes, tracksuits, fluorescent armbands, roller skates…Every Christmas was a chance for kids to watch the commercials and draw up an unrealistically-long list of “things” they wanted.

I feel that the 80s kids were midway between the “old” generation and the upcoming digital era – which incidentally might have given us a toughness that some say is lost in kids these days. We still did old-school things like get dirty, play outside, fight, use our imagination to create games, read books, hang out with our neighbours, use our memory, get shaken by the collar by teachers, do lines as a punishment, respect traditional values like family gatherings and such.

Yet at the same time, we embraced all things “modern” like video recorders, the first primitive computers, electronic Donkey Kong games, arcade games, fluorescent colours, bubble gum, Walkmans, and all the pop music we could get.

At this time, the term “spoilt” was generously used by our confused parents who would often take away our toys when we behaved badly. To them, it had been a luxury to receive even a doll or a cow-boy suit for their birthday. If your dad took you fishing or you mum took you for a poney ride it was a big event. They saw their own kids surrounded by shiny toys they could only have dreamed of. Their instincts told them it was too much, and yet were forced to go along with it.

Aside from the objects and the use of the outdoors, psychology was at a much different stage. Similar to the generation before, kids were expected to fit in and to “tough it out”. Naturally, we were allowed to cry and feel sad but there was much less introspection and analysis as there is now. The line between “normal” and “not normal” was very easily crossed. If there was a bully at school, you were told to tell the teachers (who might or might not believe you). In any case, you didn’t think of your identity as a “me” with your hangups, gender ambiguity questions, phobias or self-entitlement. You were just a person who was expected to fit in.

As such, kids were not unique little beings and were not the friends of their parents. Different age groups wore different clothes and had different interests. Kids played, and parents did sports or some type of grownup activity. You didn’t see a dad play video games with their kid while both wearing a hooded sweatshirt and baggy pants. Bedtime was a thing and there wasn’t any arguing allowed or saying you had a “bedtime phobia”.

Manners were also a principle that our parents had brought with them from their time. There was a proper way of answering the phone, of speaking to grownups and of asking for permission. Families considered that their kids were a reflection on the quality of their household, so they particularly insisted on children showing good manners in public. In class, you raised your hand before speaking and (mostly) stood up when the teacher entered the classroom. Needless to say, violence towards teachers was not even a sentence that had been uttered.

The work climate was different and reflected a life that went through longer cycles. Whereas now it is expected that we change jobs every few years and to be into multiple industries, people rarely changed jobs. You knew that the parents of your friend worked at a certain company which stayed the same for 20 years. Only rarely did someone change jobs, and it was spoken about as an event. The same could be said about where people lived: families stayed in the same house forever and certainly didn’t changes countries or even cities.

Globalization wasn’t yet a thing and the world was more divided. We didn’t quite know how Germans or Americans lived because traveling wasn’t as affordable. Different nationalities were “other” than us and in a sense gave the world a welcome sense of mystery.

The shops were much more unique to the specific location and hadn’t yet been standardized and globalized as they are now. Today, you can easily find the same products all over the world and pay with the same phone or card. Naturally, the big international brands were already in existence but the service you got in a shop was unique to that shop, as were the products they carried. One toy shop wasn’t like the other and one gym wasn’t the exact copy of the next.

My own favourite aspects on the 1980s were most certainly the music and playing outdoors. I just loved playing with my bike and the adventures we would have building dens or tree-houses. It seemed like the world wasn’t as chartered as it is now. There was room for surprises such as derelict areas, abandoned houses or overgrown fields. Even the playgrounds were unique and probably built by a local handyman for that specific park. No safety norms in those days !

The pop music was particularly good and had an immediate melody that made it a song. It wasn’t dissimilar to the 1950s artists but with a more modern sound. I don’t know about the parties or the discos because I was too young. But if films are anything to go by, it seemed like a lot of fun.

Life was a lot more structured and maybe also more focused. Before the internet, you only knew about what you saw or what you were told. Celebrities were a thing for teenage magazines and the lives of other people was of no interest. We didn’t compare ourselves as much and it was easier to shut off. When you came back from school, family time started. It was the same for parents who could forget about their jobs when they walked into the house. There was no going on Linkedin to say how fantastic you were at you job. You just did it, and forgot about it when you clocked out.

For better or for worse, you grew up according to life phases. You were first a school kid, then a student, then a worker. There was no way to start a side business while still in school or looking up on the internet if what the teacher said was correct. There was a certain trust in the authorities and they in turn probably took their responsibilities with more seriousness.

I am sure there were heavier issues that could have been addressed in the 1980s and many faults to find with this period. Anyone remotely “different” suffered for their uniqueness, be it for the clothes they wore of their sexual orientation. As we mentioned, the mixing of nationalities was in its infancy and various groups would have felt excluded by the majority.

But of this I have no notion. I was only a kid after all, whose main focus was playing with his friends, watching cartoons and riding his BMX bike.

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