What Were the 80s Like?

80s Heathers

With the final year of the 1980s now thirty-two years in the past, a phenomenon that strikes many members of Generations X and Y as both curious and bittersweet has emerged online. The first Zoomers are now twenty. That means two generations have now reached adulthood with no living memory of the 80s. As is natural, the children of Gens X and Y are now asking their elders what the days of their youth were like.

This question tends to take Xers and Ys off guard. It just doesn't feel like the 80s happened that long ago. That's not just generational solipsism, either. Cultural Ground Zero goes a long way toward explaining that weird sense of time compression. When all the big brands from thirty years ago still dominate pop culture now, it's easy to lose track of time.

Mario 20 Years Ago

That's not to say there were no important differences between life in the 80s and life as we know it now. Many cultural changes since then have been foundational and irrevocable, which goes to show that while politics is indeed downstream from culture, something else even more fundamental underlies culture.

The best way to illustrate the differences between Current Year and the Reagan Era is to just describe what select facets of 80s America was like, so let's explore a typical day in the life of a fifteen-year-old kid in 1989.

Let's jump right in.

The mellow strains of a rock ballad ease you awake. You recognize the song as "Second Chance" by 38 Special before your bleary eyes make out 5:15 AM on the radio alarm clock, which has been on since five. Silently chastising yourself for staying up late to watch Hellraiser II - but hey, Cinemax won't be airing it again until Friday, and you've got plans that night - you crawl out of bed.

You stumble around looking for the jeans you tossed on the floor before crashing last night. Even in the dark, you know your cozy childhood room like the back of your hand. It's picked up some material accretions over the years, like the 12" Sony Trinitron you got last Christmas, the Nintendo your folks bought you for raising your algebra grade from a C to an A, and your collection's crown jewel: the 4-head Magnavox VCR you bought with your own paper route money.

The paper route you're currently behind schedule for.

Your bare foot finds the rumpled pile of your jeans. You struggle into them as the early morning DJ reports the unseasonably chilly temp and quips that it beats the hurricane in Bangladesh. Choosing a hoodie over a tee shirt, you listen to the news of Chinese students occupying Tiananmen Square and half-jokingly thank God you live in a free country. 

It's shaping up to be a big news day. Better get a move on. You grab your paper carrier bag from a peg on your closet door and sling it over your shoulder. After easing open your door, you pad down the dark hallway like David Bradley in American Ninja 3. At least in your own mind. Luckily, you know the location of every loose floorboard, so you make it to the bathroom without waking your little brother or your folks. The shower looks inviting, but there's only time to splash some water on your face and rinse the toxic waste spill taste from your mouth with Listerine before heading out.

The tree-lined street where you've always lived is still asleep when you descend the front steps into the chilly but fresh morning. The kids across the street left their Huffies in their front yard again. Your Schwinn, on the other hand, waits in its usual spot on the driveway next to the house in front of your dad's '86 Volvo. With the sky lightening, you fish your Walkman out of your bag and let the driving rifts of Metallica's ... And Justice for All drown out the twittering birds.

Your calculator watch reads 5:36 by the time you skid to a stop at the paper drop. Taking a few shortcuts between houses whose sleeping owners wouldn't mind anyway, you get the last paper delivered by 6:30. That gives you just enough time to speed home, hop in the shower before it's your dad's turn, don clean clothes and your backpack. You pass your mom, ensconced on the couch in her bathrobe, on your way out the door. She turns from the morning news to ask if you want some raisin bran. You thank her but decline as you hit the road once more.

Thankfully, your folks had the foresight to buy a house near your district's high school, so you just have time to grab a drive-thru McMuffin in the middle of your ride to school. Micky D's has those transforming food items in their Happy Meals again. Man, you love those things - not that you've told anyone about the near-complete set stashed in the back of your desk drawer.

You coast in to school with five minutes to spare and park at the bike stand out front without bothering with the lock. The adrenaline from your rush to make the first bell gives way to McMuffin-instilled lethargy, and you struggle to keep your eyes open in Chemistry. Your energy levels rise from Night of the Living Dead to Return of the Living Dead by third period History. It helps that your ex-hippy teacher gives everybody a good laugh by singing the praises of Communism. Those kids facing down tanks in China would beg to differ.

Lunchtime clears the lingering fog from your head as you get some carbs in you and sit down with your friends to discuss what really matters. Ricky snatched his dad's copy of Premiere, and the guys are already deep into debating Indiana Jones vs Batman. From what you've seen in the trade mags and on Entertainment Tonight, the third Indy movie looks like the strong horse. You're not as down on Michael Keaton's casting as your friends are, though. The guy at the comic book shop knows some industry people, and he says the early footage justifies the hype.

The movie talk soon gives way to a planning session for Friday's trip. Everybody's confirmed for the basketball game at seven, postgame eats at Vinnie's Pizzeria, and the midnight show of Pet Sematary. The only bone of contention is whether to pile in Greg's van and head to the state park directly afterward, or to reconvene for the camping trip first thing Saturday morning. You inform the group that your kid brother has graciously agreed to cover your route on Saturday - with the inducement of letting him borrow your copy of Ninja Gaiden for the weekend. Your social circle unanimously votes to go for it and go straight from the movie to the campground.

Rising excitement for the coming weekend carries you through the rest of the day. Your frequent bouts of daydreaming only deprive you of some boring lectures, and a for the lit quiz, you'd already read Moby Dick in seventh grade, anyway. Ms. Kellar throws you curveball when she assigns a research paper in last period, but you can crank out a topic proposal and preliminary source list on Sunday.

Your plans to go straight home and knock out your homework after school hit a snag when Greg mentions he's swinging by the mall to pay on a CD player he's got on layaway. You accept his implied offer to tag along and toss your bike in the back of his '78 Chevy van, envious of the license you won't get till November.

The local mall's after-school crowd rivals its typical weekend volume. Greg makes his payment at Radio Shack while you gawk at all the bells and whistles on the display model. The sleek black plastic cube even lets you copy from CD to tape! You hatch plans to have Greg make you some mix tapes when he pays that bad boy off.

Business concluded, it's time for pleasure. You follow Greg into the mall proper, which teems with dudes in denim jackets and chicks with big, teased hair - which you don't particularly notice since it all looks normal, as does the mall clientele's 90% homogeneous makeup. The two of you swing by Orange Julius for a frosty treat and make the scene at the arcade. Dragon's Lair is broken again, so you dump the tokens left over from your last trip into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Your team consists of you as Don, Greg as Raph, arcade regular Kevin as Leo, and a player from the private high school's basketball team as Mike. The four of you trade jabs about the upcoming game while making it almost all the way to the end before Shredder takes you down.

Greg drops you off at home with a promise to make you that mix tape. You head straight up to your room and slam your books down on your desk, determined to make a dent in your homework before dinner. Childish shouts and intermittent explosions drifting through your window break your concentration. Your brother and his friend Lucas are setting off Black Cats in the back yard. You consider calling 911 to narc on them for setting off illegal fireworks, but the uneasy fraternal agreement your weekend's riding on stays your hand.

Mom and Dad both get off work late, which lets you take your homework into overtime. You're just polishing off an essay that effectively regurgitates that morning's history lecture when your brother pops his head in and declares in a perfunctory manner that you're going out for dinner. 

Your folks take you, your brother, and Lucas to your family's go-to chain Mexican place. Mom and Dad hold a "Who's Got the Dumbest Boss?" competition over fajitas before asking about your day. You deliver your painstakingly rehearsed pitch for Friday night. Mom voices her fears of crazy backwoods types and bears. Dad raises concerns about papers going undelivered and money uncollected. Your hopes seem to be slipping away, until your brother speaks up and says he'll cover your paper route. You feel validated for not having him arrested. By the time dessert is served, you've got your parents' grudging permission, and all is right with the world.

When you get home, you catch the new episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation before digging back into your homework. The sheer repetition leaves you mentally exhausted, but you hear your mom finishing her two-hour business call, so you muster the energy to get on the phone with Ricky and Greg. With your participation confirmed, the plan is now locked in. You chat with Greg for another half hour, giving a review of Hellraiser II that segues into current events. Greg thinks Bush should get involved n the China situation, but your constant low-grade fear of nuclear war spikes at the idea. 

You hang up and put in your comedy tape to forget about the crazy world for a while. The sharpie-scrawled label on the spine identifies this tape's contents as Caddyshack, Police Academy 3, and The Living Daylights. OK, that last one's not a comedy, but you didn't have a blank tape handy when it came on HBO the other week.

Your eyes start getting heavy by the time the Bishop gets stuck by lightning, so you set your alarm, this time switching it to the harsh buzzer instead of the radio. That should head off a repeat of this morning.

As you drift off to sleep, the usual nagging thoughts visit you. That paper is really a cloud hanging over your head. Kellar's a stickler, too. Forget to cross a t or dot an i, and she's liable to slap you with a C. There goes fifteen percent of the overall class grade, and if you don't get at least a 3.85 GPA, your odds of getting into your first-choice college go down the tubes. Then you can kiss a good law school and a partnership at a top firm goodbye. Your dad's frequent warnings about winding up as a plumber echo in your head.

Oh well, you're just a sophomore. If the old guys in charge don't blow up the planet, you'll have plenty of time to figure your life out.

You've got all the time in the world.

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  1. Brian,
    My memories of the 80s: it was a fun decade full of innovations, excitement, movement. A real sense of optimism despite the histrionics over Reagan. The economy was rebounding after the 70s stagflation; movies were once again fun. Everything seemed so possible back then.

    I don't miss everything about it. Just the optimism and the innovations coming out of the dreary 70s.


  2. Man, I was in first grade in 89. I don't relate to any of this. For all intents and purposes, I was a 90s kid. XD

    1. The '90s weren't really much different than this. At least, the first half wasn't.

    2. Cultural generations almost never map directly onto the actual temporal decades. For instance, much of the most "Nineties" stuff ever created is from 2001-2003.

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  4. High school class of 83 here. The 80s had a note of optimism that was missing from the 70s, which I vaguely noted as kid during that decade.
    The 70s were an odd time, really a lot more like a fade-out of the 60s. I like to refer to the 70s as "the decade that taste forgot" in regards to clothing fashions. ;-)

  5. My memories of the 80's are a little different, as I was considerably older than your hypothetical 15 year old. I certainly remember the optimism and some of the mall life. I also remember the dearly departed Radio Shack.

    The future really did look bright back then, what with home computers (that's what we called them back then kids), the space shuttle, and Don Johnson bagging the bad guys in a Ferrari Testarossa. A mildly conservative government that mostly left us alone didn't hurt. If it weren't for the big hair, it would have been perfect.

  6. You nailed it, Brian. If I had anything to add, it would be:
    - kids in high school, if agnostic or atheistic, kept their mouths shut.
    - If gay, ditto.
    - If sympathetic to gay people, same same.
    - And if you'd used the expression "gay marriage," the other guys would have looked at you like you had three heads.

    Looking back, it's hard to believe how we all took the mall and its 90% homogeneity for granted. If you'd been mugged by a minority of some kind, you'd have bothered to file a police report, and the cops would actually write stuff down instead of telling you to "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

    1. The 80s are notable for what was absent more than what was present.

    2. Indeed. It's crazy to think that in just 30 years, positions that would've been career enders even for the most Left-leaning Democrats have become the party orthodoxy parroted by nearly everyone in that wing of politics, and their opponents have to keep their opinions quiet. In some ways, that goes to show how transient cultural trends can be. Yet Leftists seem to think that this present order will endure for the rest of time and never be replaced by its opposite.

  7. I was 15 in 1989. Almost none of this rings true. We didn't have Cinemax, HBO, or a Nintendo. Our local DJ didn't talk about the news, he just played Led Zeppelin over and over again.

    Did you know 15 year old boys who read Premiere? Maybe Fangoria.

    The mall was in the suburbs, and we did not go there.

    I went to high school in the South. Communists?

    What 15 year old boy calls the police about illegal fireworks? Or thinks that seriously about college? Or knows anybody in his peer groups who uses layaway?

    I grant you Metallica and ...And Justice for All.

    1. You bring up another aspect of the 80s that was beyond the scope of the story but is important to reflect on. There were still strong regional differences back then. Globalism, the internet, and Californication have homogenized culture to a shocking extent.

    2. I was 22 in 89, but when I was 16 in 82 I was a news junkie who debated foreign policy with my fellow teenage policy wonks, and I lived within 2 miles of Northpark Mall in Dallas, where I walked every night to browse the game store and B. Daltons, or watch "Star Trek II" again on the projection TV at the video store (which at that time meant a store selling video equipment). But I was an Odd who hung out with other Odds. My best friend and I listened to classical and old swing. I didn't get into punk and metal until after high school.

  8. The mainstream aesthetic is all neon and synthpop, but as a kid I remember the 80s more as a cosy hangover from the 70s. I was 8 in 1989 so most of the 80s for me was as a kid. Wood paneling everywhere, thick shag carpeting, a massive imposing "Entertainment System" with record player, cassette deck, radio, VCR, etc. Making bootleg tapes of movies rented for $1. My family was not super well off so instead of NES we had an Atari 7800 so I was playing a lot of games invented in the 70s. I remember so much freedom, just days spent running in the woods, or playing with various people in the neighborhood, without constant updates to the parents. I remember going to the mall often because I got good grades and earned a video game. I remember making potato guns and ziplines with friends out in their house on a big farm. Good times.

    1. The telltale sign of a shoddy 80s period piece is when every set is slathered with neon, Memphis Milano interior design, and REO Speedwagon. Nobody got a complete home makeover the second the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1985. Instead you'd have the shag carpeting, the 70s sofa, the big walnut-trimmed console TV.

      NB: We also had a 7800 first, for similar reasons. That was a good system.

    2. This is a good way to say it. Throughout the '90s, most of the paneling, carpeting, chunky electronics, the tan colors, and the wallpaper, was gradually stripped away. Eventually all that was left was bare white walls, hardwood (actually laminate) floors, and thin and cheap furniture. To say nothing of the Apple-influenced "slick" cheap electronics.

      You can still go into a Walmart and find all of that today.

    3. That's yet another excellent point. Every apartment dweller is now a Walmartian with standard-issue Mainstays futon couch, stand lamp, and organizer cube.

  9. This is 1COMODIN9.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this lightened up "prequel" to Stu's Gen Y series. As in real life, all the warning signs of what to come are there:

    -Parents aren't divorced, but mom is a workaholic who "competes" with dad about who's boss is crappier.

    -Commies are already all over education, even though they're considered more crazy than dangerous (the flip side warning sign).

    -There's homogeneity, yes, but that's because whites self-segregated to suburbia.

    -Chy-na is up to some shenanigans...

    I've always thought you two should write something together, but maybe this is the closest thing we'll get to it.


    1. Good eyes. You picked up a lot of the elements other readers missed.

      For a case study in how things played out when those warning signs went unheeded, read the story I kicked the whole trend off with: