Has the world changed much since the 1980s?
July 24, 2012 2:16 PM   Subscribe

A friend and I had a friendly disagreement about whether society as a whole has changed significantly since the 1980s. Can you help me bolster my side?

This morning, me and a friend-- a German blogger/writer-- were discussing my new book which is coming out at the end of the year, a time travel story about a woman who goes back to 1989. He said it sounded interesting, but the problem he had with it was the same problem he had with all time travel stories set in the '80s and '90s-- he doesn't see that much difference in terms of culture. He said, "It's why Back to the Future worked so well, there was a wide chasm between 1955 and 1985, more so than 1985 to 2015. Know what I mean?"

When I said that I felt the differences from the 1980s to the 2010s were huge, he replied that we might have new tech, like cell phones and computers and the internet, but culturally we're not that different from twenty-five years ago. I can see what he's getting at, but I still think there are huge differences. These are mainly caused by the tech, but I think there are also big cultural shifts in how we view women, gay people, black people, etc. For example, it's hard to imagine a new Leisure Suit Larry type franchise being invented in today's climate, or how in 1987 no one thought to question why no women authors were interviewed by the L. Ron Hubbard writers of the future contest. And then there's the fact we live in a somewhat dystopian present, something of a proto-Minority Report type society with "Homeland Security" and swat teams in every town.

Anyway, what do you guys think? Do you think there has or hasn't been a huge cultural shift from the 1980s? And why? Super detailed and nerdy answers are especially welcome!
posted by suburbanbeatnik to Society & Culture (71 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
How often did people look at pictures of their friend's meals back in the eighties?
posted by oceanjesse at 2:24 PM on July 24, 2012 [20 favorites]

I read something once (forgive me, it may have been a Cracked article) that said the most accurate time travel/depiction of future scenario in any movie was in the Terminator. Or Terminator 2 or whichever one it was that was set in the future. I don't know. Anyway, their reasoning was that it depicted the several-years-in-the-future pretty much exactly as life was at the time of the movie, because when you think about it, nothing ever really changes that much.

So, sure. You can definitely make a play for there being huge, specific differences between life in the '80s and life in the teens--pocket internet, the 9/11 effect, etc. But you'll have to sell your case hard. You're writing about two time periods that most people alive today have lived through, and most people are going to look at that and say, "hey, I haven't changed all that much, the world probably hasn't either."
posted by phunniemee at 3:11 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

This AskMe is a new trend you didn't have in the '80's:
Remote work fostering homelessness-by-choice and world travel among relatively young prople (not retirees). This is hardly the first example I have seen of it.
posted by Michele in California at 3:13 PM on July 24, 2012

Same-sex marriage.
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:22 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

The reason Back to the Future works is because Marty was so young. I don't know how I'd react to going back in time to 1985, but I'm pretty sure my helicopter-parented, cell-phone-always-having, never-used-a-phone-book nieces and nephews would be thrown by quite a few things.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:29 PM on July 24, 2012 [16 favorites]

I don't think culture has changed all that much since 1985. We still shop at the same place (the mall), still wear the same clothes (Levi's and Nikes), consume the same culture (Nintendo, Star Wars), eat the same food, (McDonalds), and even listen to the same music.

The 1950's were a cultural revolution. You had new technologies like the automobile that defined a generation (Boomers), and consumption and personal identity and youth culture was just getting established.

There were cell phones back in 1985.

Intercontinental air travel, Japanese food, all that good stuff. Nothing much has changed.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:33 PM on July 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think there are also big cultural shifts in how we view women, gay people, black people, etc. For example, it's hard to imagine a new Leisure Suit Larry type franchise being invented in today's climate,

I'm pretty sure African Americans are worse off than in 1985 - their health and economic outcomes have deteriorated.

As for sexist videogames, apparently you can't even mention that video games are sexist without getting death threats these days.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:37 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your new book sounds awesome, by the way.

I think MCMikeNamara is onto something. I write for teenagers, and it's in the little differences in culture that I frequently feel disoriented and out of my depth. And I'm not even that old--at 28, I was part of the first generation of kids who grew up with computers in their homes. However, most people did not have the Internet (my next door neighbor's dad did, and that was weird). We still had keyboarding classes, rather than general computer classes. We were taught to search for literary criticism in high school English class using microfiche and literary indices. My sister left for college in 1997 without a computer. When I went to college five years later, it was with a desktop model (complete with huge CRT monitor). When I first went to bars, it was still common to get into massive, nerdy, circular arguments about word usage, long-forgotten television shows, and what actor was in what movie.

Pocket computing has changed all of that, but it goes deeper than that, even. I don't want to reiterate Patton Oswalt, but it really does cause a huge cultural shift to have massive amounts of information at your fingertips. Forget microfiche--today's generation (get off my lawn!) will never have to wonder for any length of time if a TV show they watched at age 3 was some sort of fruit-snack induced fever dream.

American society seems more widely dispersed, too. Even into the 80s, small local television stations didn't reach much further than any metropolitan area. The kids growing up in California knew different TV than the kids growing up in the Philadelphia area. Now, other than local newscasters, that's widely not the case. Never mind the fact that people are downloading Mad Men in countries halfway across the world. I mean, when I was in high school, and an anime fan, we had to go to cons or New York City to buy bootlegged VHS tapes of the shows we liked, often for large sums of money. It's easier to geek out now over the artifacts of someone else's culture.

I also think the movement away from latchkey kids is a massive one. It's more common for teens and kids today to grow up without knowing how to fend for themselves, either in terms of "survival skills" (which, for me, meant microwaving ramen while my mom was working late) or in terms of scheduling one's own time. When I was in middle school, the woods between the local dump and the local high school were packed full of kids smoking pot, riding dirtbikes, sexually harassing one another, and sometimes getting into physical fights. We were mostly middle and upper middle class eleven and twelve year olds, too. I'm genuinely not sure if those woods would be the same place now. I genuinely suspect that they're empty--if they haven't been paved over completely.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:46 PM on July 24, 2012 [44 favorites]

And then there's the fact we live in a somewhat dystopian present, something of a proto-Minority Report type society with "Homeland Security" and swat teams in every town.

Oh, and yeah, this is something that most YA sci-fi authors I know agree with: kids today are coming of age in an era when there's almost no optimism about society, science, or technology. They're wary of the government, of stuff like genetic engineering and GMOs and cloning, whereas in the 1980s you could still be reasonably optimistic about all of these things. Some of this is, of course, political.

Along the same lines, most teens I've encountered had abstinence-only education in schools. They tend to be both warier about sexuality and less well-informed about contraception.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:51 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It really depends on where you are - the changes in the UK from the 1980s to now are huge, but possibly different to those elsewhere in Europe or the US.

I think twenty years is the period of time by which to measure change - it's the timeframe by which things start to look and feel 'old'. I'm a great believer that small, pop cultural changes are fairly significant - after all, are they not illustrative of how people live their day to day life? And it's revealing to compare ten years ago to twenty years ago in terms of how dated they feel...

2002 doesn't feel very much different to now, even if, when you think about it, quite a few things have changed (smartphones, the internet being mainstream rather than hobbyist - broadband taking off here a couple of years later - Percy Pigs etc.). The cars people drove and the clothes people wore didn't seem very different. Fast fashion was taking off, meaning shops changed their stock constantly. People played on consoles mostly similar to the ones now, they watched multi-channel TV, they could eat out in sushi bars. Cheap air travel meant, as now, people could fly all over Europe for the cost of a mid-price meal. You wouldn't get much of a culture shock if you landed back in 2002.

1992? Different world. No web for people outside computer labs, four channels unless you were one of the few to have satellite, mobile phones were owned only by businesspeople, sushi bars were weird and exotic and only to be found in smart restaurants rather than people being able to pick up a tray of onigiri in the supermarket. Clothes would look markedly different to today - in fact the current fashion seems to revive the floral prints and flannels of 1992 and shops released a few lines per year. Console games looked very different; people are still playing games on Amigas and PCs were expensive and therefore less common in the home. Europop ruled the charts. Vauxhall Chevettes and Datsun Cherrys could still be seen parked on the streets. Air travel was expensive and considered, rather than something one could concievably do on a whim.

If you go back to 1985, the effect is the same, if more pronounced. Twenty years seems to be the tipping point.

In 1995, the 1970s to me seemed incredibly lame, uncool and difficult to relate to, especially at a time when the kids of the 70s were growing up and facilitating media nostalgia, but the music of the 1980s was great. The exception I think are films - they seem to go on a 30yr cycle as far as remakes go (Footloose, Total Recall, The Sweeney, Prometheus if you want to split hairs) as though the current audiences are assumed to be too young to have seen them (or be interested in seeking them out) from first time round.
posted by mippy at 3:52 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

There were cell phones back in 1985.

Yes, but the elephant in the room here is this thing we're all using to connect with each other. The internet. That's a HUGE technological change, inconceivable really from a 1985 perspective ... unless you'd read William Gibson's Neuromancer, which few had in '85.

And yet, I believe it's true that, short of zombie (or other) apocalypse, no cultural change will ever be as intense as what happened through the 1960s. It really was a time when EVERYTHING changed. EVERYBODY was affected. There was no going home when it was done.

But if you're looking for the real spark for it all (and it's a big one), I think you've got to go back to August-5-1945, the atom bomb getting dropped on Hiroshima. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, that was history's exclamation point! Suddenly, we had the means to kill everything and everyone forever. Suddenly, real and meaningful change had to happen, else we were all doomed.

So it's no coincidence then that the generation that was born in and around that date and hit their 20s in the mid-60s are the ones who really pushed it, questioned everything, tried everything. Yeah, you can argue it started before them with the Beats in the 50s (it did) but critical mass moment wasn't achieved until around 1965 (speaking of exclamation points).

Call it the snare shot at the beginning of Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone.
posted by philip-random at 3:54 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Frames of reference for today's kids have changed. For my kids, Jim Carrey is the guy from The Truman Show and Mr. Popper's Penguins. Bill Murray is the guy from What About Bob? but they don't realize he was around way before that. Harry Potter has changed the way kids view Fantasy. And they take computer graphics for granted (they think Jurassic Park looks cheesy and fake, and I kind of agree...).
posted by tacodave at 3:56 PM on July 24, 2012

And - it wasn't that long ago that one had to carry round a set of tapes and/or books if they were on a long journey. One has been replaced by a tiny device that holds literally thousands of tapes' worth of music, and the other can be replaced by a slim tablet device. It boggles my mind to think I ever had to preselect the soundtrack to my day before leaving the house in the form of physical media.
posted by mippy at 3:56 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Culturally, everything was slower. If you wanted to hang out with friends, unless you had already arranged something, you were stuck alone that night, with no way to find out where anyone was.

Parenting is culturally worlds apart. Young kids were free to roam unsupervised far from the home, at their own discretion, for hours at a time - or all day. That's unthinkable today.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:01 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

He said, "It's why Back to the Future worked so well, there was a wide chasm between 1955 and 1985, more so than 1985 to 2015.

You could totally reboot Back to the Future with 2015 as the new 1985. It's all about highlighting the fact that everything is different and yet still the same.

It's all about the little things. Imagine going back 30 years and walking into the neighborhood grocery store. Sure the prices are different but everything is basically the same. Right up until you have to pay. No Credit Card/Debit Machine at the checkout. It's Cash or Check. And if you do find a place that takes credit cards, it's with one of those Carbon Copy machines.

The differences between Now and 30 years ago are real, but most of them are subtle. When was the last time your friend watched an 80's movie, or better yet an 80's TV show? A few episodes of Magnum P.I. should clearly illustrate how much things have changed (and how much they really haven't).
posted by zinon at 4:03 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I really want to nth MCMikeNamara and PhoBWanKenobi. I think most anyone in the western world is going to see the impact of the information age changing the world from 1989 to present. But what strikes me most isn't how much the world has changed from my perspective (and it's changed loads; I'm 29). It's what I see when I try to look at the world from my nieces' and nephews' perspectives. Born in the late 90s, they have no concept of 1989. They don't have any recollection of a divided Berlin, whereas I watched the wall fall on TV when I was 6. To them, it's just a story from their history textbook. Their parents want to give them cell phones and iPod touches and Nintendo DS before they hit kindergarten. Most of them probably won't need to figure out how to write a check, adjust their TV antenna, wait for someone to get off the internet so they can make a phone call. Only the oldest among them might have memories from before mom was concerned about buying organic, non-GMO food. They'll never be shocked because the price of gas is past $1/gal (or $2, or $3).

I could go on, but I think you get the point. And besides, just go look at all those 80s/90s nostalgia boards on Pinterest, for example. I think as a generation, we definitely know there's been a big cultural shift. I think you have a great (and fun) basis for a fish-out-of-water novel here.
posted by asciident at 4:13 PM on July 24, 2012

There's a scene in the movie Highlander, where the highlander finds out the woman is an expert on metallurgy and realizes she's hiding her real motivations. He presents her with how he found out - a book on metallurgy with her as the author. She is stunned to have been found out.

In the 80s, what he just did was nigh-on impossible, a great feat of expertise.
Today, that scene doesn't even parse to modern viewers - if you give someone your name, and you wrote a book under that name, of course they're going to know. Duh.

Information was much harder to obtain. If you were interested in something obscure, you were on your own. Maybe you could find some brief info in a library system, but everyone reinvented the wheel. Now, people with obscure interests have message boards and the difference in what amateurs do now is amazing.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:14 PM on July 24, 2012 [10 favorites]

Hot Tub Time Machine riffed on this a bit. From the trailer, it did seem a bit 'Michael Jackson is still black LOLZ' but it does illustrate how quickly recent history does indeed become history. I recently read The Last Party, a book about the indie scene in the 1990s here in the UK, and what struck me was how different the record industry was (more money to throw around) and the nature of being famous (paparazzi took their shots for the next day's paper, not that afternoon's gossip sites or newspaper sidebars of shame). It occured ot me that in the 90s, the gossip rag culture we have today didn't really exist, reality shows didn't make celebrities and there was less focus on celebrities looking bad/good off-duty and who is or isn't too fat/too thin etc. Teenagers now have grown up with that stuff in the background.
posted by mippy at 4:15 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

In the US at least, the AIDS epidemic/pandemic was becoming more widespread in 1989. I don't know that you can underestimate the difference between, say, the gay community in New York City in 89 and same in 2009.

Also in the US, despite the uneven progress of non-white people, particularly African-Americans, since then, in 1989 the civil rights movement was in much sharper living memory. For example, Ronald Reagan campaigned for the presidency in 1980 in the small town where three white civil rights volunteers were killed in 1964, and gave a really creepy speech about states' rights there. Obviously a lot of the gains of civil rights are still being contested even today, but it felt a lot more- raw, I guess? To people in 1989. Ditto the student revolts/uprisings of 1968- those were still kind of live categories.

There's probably also something high-level to be written about the politics of fear, and how they've shifted from, like, statist nuclear war and acid rain to asymmetrical terrorist attacks and global warming, but I think for "regular people," the politics of fear play out in more or less the same ways- stockpiling for nuclear winter looks a lot like stockpiling for peak oil.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:17 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

People still shop at the mall? That's a funny thing to call Amazon...
posted by Good Brain at 4:38 PM on July 24, 2012

*Cell phones: expensive and few & far between, especially when compared to now, when it's RARE for anyone to not have one. Landlines were the norm. (I still have my own first cell phone: a '90s Motorola that's literally the size of a brick.)
*Computers: usually this meant a room-size installation; sure, there were some home computers, but they were weak and had limited use. (Google? The internet as we know it now? Ha!)
*Music tech: CDs only arrived in the mid-80s or so; cassettes faded near the end of the decade, but were still widely available. iPods? Downloads? Never heard of 'em.
*Travel: there wasn't any such thing as the TSA; no bodyscanners or security theater at the airports. No Priceline or other online travel agregators; you went to a travel agent or even went to the airport itself to buy a ticket --- and in the the mid-80s, it was still possible to pay for that ticket with cash, and nobody was demanding your ID either then or when you boarded the plane.
*Cars: that third brake light on your car? Just came along in 1985. It was possible but unlikely you'd have a car with airbags or one of those little keyfobs to lock or unlock your car doors. Your new car's radio probably came with AM/FM and a cassette player.

There wasn't anything like Facebook or other social media sites; texting and Twitter hadn't been invented, and email existed but was far less common. Gamers today would consider that era the dark ages! Special effects in movies have taken quantum leaps in the intervening years.

Easiest way to get a quick feel for the past: put down all your electronics for a week..... no cell phone, no texts or Twitters, no emails, no iPod or iPad or any sort of computer (no Metafilter!); although you could have a word processor.
posted by easily confused at 4:39 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, if you are a middle-to-upper-class white person living somewhere in the West, you probably don't feel that your personal safety/security from state or state-sanctioned violence has changed that much, because it remains what it has been for a long time, which is pretty good. You can more or less go to work, go to school, travel from place to place without having to bribe police officers to go through busy checkpoints unaccosted; you're unlikely to be raped or assaulted by the police for no reason; you don't worry about your car or bus being bombed by a terrorist group or political opponent; you conceal your political beliefs, if at all, out of politeness and not fear, but you probably feel perfectly comfortable putting a bumper sticker on your car or wearing a tee-shirt that supports a particular candidate or party; if you want to open a business or get a loan from the government (like an FHA loan or a VA mortgage, for example), you don't budget for bribes or "protection" money to be paid to the police, etc.

But in 1989, South Africa was still a year away from even opening negotiations about ending apartheid. Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robben Island. Northern Ireland was still knee-freakin-deep in The Troubles. Guatemala was in the waning years of a horrifically bloody civil war. The USSR was on its last legs. To steal a riff from Louis CK (and not to make light of anyone's suffering), I'm pretty sure that if you stopped a random black person in South Africa today and asked them if they would like to jump in a time machine and go back to 1989, they're...probably not going to be very enthusiastic about that prospect.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:41 PM on July 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

I don't think culture has changed all that much since 1985. We still shop at the same place (the mall), still wear the same clothes (Levi's and Nikes), consume the same culture (Nintendo, Star Wars), eat the same food, (McDonalds), and even listen to the same music.

I shop on Amazon, wear clothes from ThinkGeek, read online fanfiction or e-books on my ipad, eat thai/vietnamese/korean/sushi that I order online for delivery and listen to or watch anything I want through legal online streaming. If I want to, I can even work remotely, and have no need to leave my apartment for a week.

Outside America, freedom of movement across European borders and the Euro itself didn't exist in the 80's. Your 15 year old German Marty McFly would quite possibly not even recognise the currency if he were transported back 20 years. He would have shown a passport to cross into Austria
posted by jacalata at 4:41 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, I think you're on to something. If you do it right. Think about it. Just looking at technology... It's a smaller world now. Nearly anyone can pull out a cell phone and look up anything online. Anything. We couldn't do that in 1989. Pay phones were still a thing back in 1989 because not everyone and their cousin had a cell phone. GPS? Forgetaboutit. Pagers, still a thing in the late 80's. Now it's no big thing to even have your argument with someone in Germany. In the 80's? Maybe by mail. I think we could connect with Bulletin Board Systems... if that. Heck, we didn't even have the Windows we know today... it was still Windows 2.1.

I remember telling a kid in his 20's about the time I got lost in New York City in the early 90's and how I had to stop and ask for directions every two blocks (they talk fast there). He honestly asked why I didn't just look it up on my GPS or call the person whom I was visiting for directions. Seriously, there's a disconnect.

If someone young were dumped into the world of the late 80's they might blend in, language-wise, but they would seriously be disconnected when it comes to technology. They'd expect information NOW and they wouldn't get it. I don't even think they *could* get it because the technology just didn't exist.
posted by patheral at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

You should read through the comments to "You'll Put Your Eye Out!", an insanely wonderful compendium of the scary and dangerous things that MeFites did as children and which they would *never* allow their own children to do now. The comments really speak to the generational differences of free-range parenting (original version) and surveillance parenting. Trampolines! Amateur pyrotechnics! Squishing objects on the railroad tracks! LAWN DARTS. (Not sure about that last one, but man was I jealous of the lady ahead of me at the local rummage sale when I saw her carrying LAWN DARTS in their original box.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:46 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The enemy in the 80s (for Americans) was communism. Think Red Dawn. No one could remember the difference between Iraq and Iran. Japan was the economic juggernaut.

Kids talked on the phone to their friends after school and everyone wanted their own line in their room. And while plans did have to be made in advance, you often knew where to find people - the football game, the movie theater.
posted by Sukey Says at 4:55 PM on July 24, 2012

Not a word about 9/11?

You could still just walk into a whole lot of places without any looking at you twice. The crash of '87 was over and things were beginning to look up. Music was cheesy but entertaining.

In Poland, Solidarity was legalized (that was huge at the time) and the Russians left Afghanistan, proving that they were on the wane. Students protested in Tienanmien square (yes, that is the year of the tank picture). Hungary began rolling up the iron curtain barbed wire and opened borders with Austria. Gorbachev was loosening up religious restraints.

No, 1989, the times they definitely were a'changing world wide, and it looked like in a good way

On preview-

The enemy in the 80s (for Americans) was communism. Think Red Dawn. No one could remember the difference between Iraq and Iran.

Communism was visibly crumbling and Iran still was the country that held the US embassy hostage. (This was the year Khomeini died, which was widely noted in the US.)
posted by BWA at 5:02 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The reason Back to the Future works is because Marty was so young.

exactly. Also, it isn't that the world is so different as much as that they make a series of jokes that point out the way it actually is different - like Marty ordering a Tab or wearing a certain kind of jacket. What makes it funny is showing the little ways things really have changed. If it were completely obvious in a flying-cars kind of way it wouldn't be as funny... The internet's obviously a huge shift that can't be overlooked, but little changes are more entertaining.

No starbucks/chain coffee places.
Health food stores were for hippies, frozen food was common even at restaurants.
No messenger bags.
Brooklyn wasn't cool, "alternative" hadn't gone mainstream yet, manic-panic still made parents freak out...
Landlines, area codes mattered.
Glasses = nerd, contacts exciting new tech. Being a geek/nerd Not Cool.
posted by mdn at 5:03 PM on July 24, 2012

If someone young were dumped into the world of the late 80's they might blend in, language-wise, but they would seriously be disconnected when it comes to technology.

I think more than that, they would be unable to function. Someone would have to walk them through many steps of life. They could drive (if they drive stick) and they would know that stores are locations that sell food, but once you get above that level of simplicity, the skills for navigating the world just don't work there.

Seriously, I knew how to function then, but today I look back to that time, and I no-longer understand how to do things, even though I was there and did them, I have to stop and think and remember, it's no-longer intuitive - and yet I grew up with it.

There's nothing magic about those skills, except that people around you have been learning them their whole lives and you've got to catch up. You'd pick up the basics pretty quick, and get tripped up less and less as time went on, but even years later, you'd be hitting things that force you to stop and figure it out or ask for help.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:04 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was in my 40's during the 1980's and it is very different: greater global interdependence, increasing balkanization in the United States, progress for women, gay rights, greater understanding of income and wealth disparities, decline of network TV as a homogenizing factor and increase of cable/internet leading to greater heterogeneity in entertainment/news, a regression from the mean in culturally standardized values, world travel and the list goes on. As far as i see it--it is a fundamentally different world. The nature of humanity remains constant but everything else is evolving at increasing speed.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:07 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Possibly useful: 14 First-World Problems from the 90s, such as "Someone's on the phone; I can't use the internet."
posted by kayram at 5:15 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

One thing that surprises me when I think of it is that I went to the movies in the 1980's because that was the simplest way to see a movie. In the early 1980's it still wasn't that strange for a household to be without a VCR. My Dad got a VCR in late 70's (a huge, hulking metal box) but my Mom didn't have one until the mid to late 1980's. I'd say maybe half of my friends had VCRs in the first half of the 80's. So, as late as 1986, I saw most movies in the theaters. Seeing a movie meant planning, dressing in outdoor kinds of clothes, wearing shoes, being 'social' (since the rule was that I had to hang out in groups when I was a teenager, seeing a movie also meant inviting other people), reaching a consensus regarding what to see, and possibly figuring out transportation. Movies were casual events but because of the planning they were 'events' that usually got relegated to the weekend. As much as I would have liked to watch certain movies or scenes over again, or needed to (Pulp Fiction, for example, required subsequent viewings for me to completely understand it), that wasn't yet the norm. Also, depending on the rental places available, certain genres (sadly, in my case it was Hitchcock movies) were not necessarily available. It all depended on your rental options.

(I love questions like this!)
posted by marimeko at 5:16 PM on July 24, 2012

In the 80s if you didn't have the cas-single or record of your favorite song, you'd have to wait until it played on the radio (and then hope the DJ didn't talk over it).
posted by drezdn at 5:22 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's another thing, one had to carry cash with them everywhere (as well as change for the phone). Point of Sale transactions where not as much of a thing in the 80's. Very few people carry cash with them nowadays, and I don't know many people who use checks as much as we did in the 80's and 90's. Back then I would have been horrified to put anything lower than $30 on a credit card, and I don't even think it was allowed in most places.
posted by patheral at 5:33 PM on July 24, 2012

I really noticed the magnitude of how the world has changed when I introduced my 9-year-old to Airplane! I had to keep explaining stuff, like how people used to be allowed to smoke on airplanes and in offices, and you didn't need a ticket to go to the gate, and kids used to sometimes get to go visit the cockpit, and there were telephones that accepted coins to pay for calls, etc.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:38 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here's a small cultural shift:

In 1982, David Letterman started Late Night; his band was the World's Most Dangerous Band, led by Paul Schaffer, whose previous experience was on Broadway and with the SNL band, under film composer Howard Shore.

In 1993, Conan O'Brien took over; his band was led by Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, a classic rock n' roll outfit from the 70s.

In 2009, Jimmy Kimmel took over; his band was the Roots, the finest live hip-hop band in the nation.

The first rap Grammy was given in 1989, to the entirely unthreatening DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince; Will Smith tied or held the record for most rap Grammys for 11 years until he was passed by Eminem in 2000.

Jay-Z was the first hip hop artist to headline Glastonbury, that was in 2008, and it was still controversial.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, hip hop has gone from being considered terrifying ghetto music to a novelty to a genre to the absolute mainstream.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:39 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sex was considered a lot dirtier in the 80s. Swearing was more of a big deal. I like to think the attempt to unseat Bill Clinton was what put sexual talk into the mainstream.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:53 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, I can tell you my job is in an industry that didn't exist in the 1980s. I work with a team of two other guys. One of them works on the west coast of Canada and the other works on the east coast of Canada. I've met with my boss face to face a total of twice and I've worked for him a year. I've met with my coworker once in my entire life. We talk and coordinate everything via tools like Skype and Google Docs/Apps that are still relatively recent. Every morning and via IM/Skype I talk to people in England, Spain, Norway, Germany, and people from the West Coast to the East Coast.

Or there's people. When I was a kid, people just...disappeared. And I don't mean in a criminal sense. I mean it was entirely commonplace to come to school after summer vacation or a break and find a kid or a friend, even a close friend, just disappeared. If you were lucky, maybe you had an address you could send shaky letters to or a phone number you could make expensive long distance calls--that's another small thing, making a long distance call used to be a Big Fucking Deal, like for special occasions and for relatives you never saw, I mean, Unlimited Long Distance is just crazy if you ever got in trouble for running up the long distance bill like I did--to but you'd eventually fall out of touch without a lot of effort. Even into the email/IM era, people's accounts would get hacked or they'd change and forget to tell you or they'd move ISPs and, poof. Gone. My social circle is pretty much 5 people I really, really worked to stay in contact with pre-joining Facebook and then everyone I've met and wanted to stay in touch with since joining Facebook, which is considerably more. Like "who was that cool guy I worked with at retail in like 2004"? Well, I remember his first name and the extremely common chain store we worked for. Who's that cool guy I worked with in 2008? Oh, there he is, there's his picture, where he is currently, and what he had for dinner.

Or look at things like popular culture. There's a lot of shows, even relatively recent shows, that revolve around things like cars breaking down, hunting for a pay phone, people not being able to coordinate, people getting lost, and so on. Even episodes of Seinfeld and Friends that I watch in syndication when I go to the gym that wouldn't make sense to a kid born when those shows were on. Your car broke down? Call AAA. What the heck is a pay phone? You can't get someone on the phone? Send him a text. You're lost? You don't have a GPS or phone that does GPS?

The first vacation I remember going on as a kid, my mom had to write the local Chamber of Commerce and get a bunch of pamphlets and then we had to carefully plan where we were going in a road atlas. And there was no guarantee any of those attractions were open or worth seeing, we had no way to verify that AWESOMELAND was, in fact, awesome.

Then I remember when my then-girlfriend and I went on our first vacation in 2002, we had to use Mapquest to print out our route in advance because hotels usually didn't have high speed internet and mayyyybe there'd be a local node to dial into for dialup, but there was no guarantee the phone line was good enough to get a decent connection. Then we did a bunch of research online and found all the places we wanted to go and printed out directions to those in case the internet didn't work. Then we got a paper map because who knew if those directions were any good. Everything was carefully planned and researched in advance otherwise we'd be relying on those same pamphlets from the previous paragraph.

For our last vacation, we updated the GPS and just...went. When we wanted to eat, we'd use our phones to find restaurants in the area and all of them had a bunch of reviews, so we always knew we were eating at a good place. We checked the list of attractions and could read reviews to find out if things were worth doing. We knew if the hotel was nice before we went. My GPS spits traffic updates in real time and we can route around them, so if we had to get off the highway onto creepy 2 lane state highways, no big deal. GPS broke? I'll pull out my phone. My phone isn't getting reception or is broke? Wife's phone. GPS is broke and both phones are broke? We're dealing with an extinction-level event here.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:10 PM on July 24, 2012 [13 favorites]

I was an adult in 1985. British. In London. I honestly do not feel that broad cultural signifiers have changed that much. Yes, the technology has moved on massively but even in 1985 we were kinda braced for that (or at least those who were working in the field were.) Yes, that meant things like more use of cash, cheques etc; no urge to be constantly communicating trivia to people and so on, but I do not regard these things as major, culture-defining things. They strike me as the ephemera of the age, to a large extent, and more than a little fashion-driven. The advent of the internet has been a big deal, but cellphones still seem relatively superficial, to me. YMMV.

" it's hard to imagine a new Leisure Suit Larry type franchise being invented in today's climate,"

On the other hand, "Nuts", "Heat", "Loaded", and lap-dancing clubs. Ya know? Same shit, different clothes.

"Sex was considered a lot dirtier in the 80s."

Not were I lived, it wasn't. Quite the reverse, I'd say. In the last ten or fifteen years there seems to have been an increase in prudishness and moralising about sex, if anything.

"Swearing was more of a big deal"

Again, not where I lived. There is far more fuss made about the words which are "acceptable" now than there ever was in the eighties. There is far more sensitivity about what can and cannot be said.
posted by Decani at 6:23 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the 80s as a teenager, I remember feeling like we were so technologically advanced because things like microwaves, VCRs, cable TV, and car phones became more common. If my teenager of today visited teenage me of the 80s, she'd probably laugh at how amazed I was at heating up food in just a few seconds, or watching movies from VHS tape, or recording TV programs, which is common now but was a huge deal back then.

While most of us didn't have cell phones, we saw them in movies like Wall Street or in shows like Miami Vice, so it felt imminent that we'd be carrying them around one day. Teenage me would absolutely want an iPhone, like when my car broke down, which was often, so I wouldn't have to walk to the nearest pay phone or bother a clerk to use their store phone.

The Concorde jet also made an impression on me, especially during Live-Aid when Phil Collins started his day with a set in London, then flew across the Atlantic to finish his day at the finale in Philadelphia. Teenage me expected that by now, we'd have three hour flights between NY and London and modern me is bummed that it still takes seven hours.

Teenage me had no clue about the Internet and its capabilities and would probably have a hard time understanding the things my teenager of today would tell me about it. I had pen-pals and we'd mail each other pictures, candy bars, and rock band posters. There was no emailing each other hyperlinks to gifs of pictures we'd taken just seconds ago with our iPhone. Sending a picture meant taking a roll of film to the Fotomat to get developed, picking it up, hoping for at least one good picture, putting it in an envelope, and taking it to the post office. I always got a little thrill seeing the red Par Avion stamp on an envelope.
posted by hoppytoad at 6:47 PM on July 24, 2012

We still shop at the same place (the mall), still wear the same clothes (Levi's and Nikes), consume the same culture (Nintendo, Star Wars), eat the same food, (McDonalds), and even listen to the same music.

Yes and no.

We still shop at the mall? The mall still exists, I guess, but neither big box stores nor online shopping existed in 1985. I mean, there was Kmart, but even that wasn't anything remotely close to what going into Costco or IKEA or even Target is like in 2012. Kmart was where you went for school supplies, camping equipment, and crappy death-trap bikes. Not furniture, groceries, and an espresso, all at the same time. And amazon.com would seem like science fiction to someone in the early/mid 80's.

Same clothes? Sure, we still wear jeans and sneakers, but the rest? And the variations on all those items? Pretty sure that if someone dressed like this got beamed back to 1985, people would think they were an alien. Not to mention that these are the 2012 model of Levi's, and these are the 2012 model of Nikes.

Nintendo and Star Wars are enjoyed for their retro sensibilities, but someone from 1985 would be amazed to find out there are six Star Wars movies now rather than three. Also video games? Really? Video games now compared to video games in 1985 is like comparing Avatar to The Great Train Robbery. Actually, not even. More like comparing Avatar to the kinetoscope.

The same food? We ordered in Indian takeout at work today. My boss, who knows very little about Indian food and wishes she had a real sense of the cuisine, ordered Chicken Vindaloo, a dish I'd guess most cultured Americans had ever heard of in 1985. Even if you want to talk about bottom end stuff like McDonald's, in 1985 McD's served burgers, fries, and cokes. I remember the advent of the Chicken McNugget, right around that time. It was HUGE. Revolutionary. Now you can go to McDonald's for a burrito, a caesar salad, or a caramel macchiato.

Re the music? Not really. Keep in mind that one of our more mundane pop stars routinely shows up to events in dresses made of meat or sunglasses covered in smoldering cigarettes and nobody thinks much about it. Nobody is all, "omg devil music!" I know fundamentalist Christians whose kids listen to Gaga, and they're just sort of meh about it. And that's someone whose music you can trace directly back to the music of the 80's, not to even get into the very real changes that have happened.
posted by Sara C. at 7:02 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of shows, even relatively recent shows, that revolve around things like cars breaking down, hunting for a pay phone, people not being able to coordinate, people getting lost, and so on.

Oh yeah, forget about Rocky Horror, because in 2012 it doesn't matter that CASTLES DON'T HAVE PHONES, ASSHOLE.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:25 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was born in 1980 in NW England, and can't believe how different the world today is. I think kids now would have a hard time imagining our lifestyles and tiny, parochial worlds.

Off the top of my head:

- Four channels on TV, which start at 6.30am and end at 1am, with a formal 'Goodnight and take care until tomorrow' message. The test card with the picture of the girl and the clown. If you wanted to know what was on, you got the TV Times or used Teletext.

- Your source of new music was relying on what your friends were playing when you went to their house or through the radio. You might watch Top of The Pops. There were music magazines you could buy that came out weekly and might have a 'sample cassette' cellotaped to the front of them. Music formats were cassettes or vynl, and sometimes you'd be able to record your favourite songs onto a C90 from the radio.

- Information was stored at the library in books, and most people considered that too dreary and time consuming to bother doing, so for the layperson unknown stuff remained unknown. You could also go through their catalogue of local papers with permission. If you wanted to find a phone number it meant pouring through the phone book, or perhaps locating the correct one(s) first before you could even do that. If you wanted to find a person you could do it by looking through the census records or perhaps by contacting Companies House. But this was also the only way to find out about art, history, literature, etc too. All my school projects had to be researched at the library.

- Your 'friends' were the people you hung around with regularly and were close to, that was a small group of about 3 - 8 people.

- You could still smoke on the top of the bus.

- When you were taking pictures, you had no idea what they would end up looking like until you went to the chemists and had them developed, which would take a few days and be expensive. You could take between 24 - 48 pictures at a time.

- As far as video games, I had a ZX Spectrum 28k. The games came on cassette and took half an hour each to load. My favourite was Double Dragon. Other friends had a Commodore 64 that had Pacman and was SO. AMAZING.

- AIDS was a big scary thing and there were pamphlets about it with tombstones on the front at the local doctor's office.

- Thatcher, miners, school milk, poll tax and unemployment....

- The IRA were a major concern and our primary school had to be evacuated about twice a year when someone would ring in a bomb threat.

- The telephone hung on the wall and was a rotary. One bill for the family, with everything itemised. Big trouble if you misused it! Private phone calls were conducted from the telephone box at the top of the street, which usually had a queue so you couldn't be on it for too long.

- No parental leave for men. My dad went back to work 4 hours after I was born and never got any time off on account of having a baby.

- Meeting up with friends was pre-planned and you set a time and place and if you were late there was no way of telling them. If you were on the bus you wore a Walkman (a book would've got you a shitload of grief where I'm from), and fast-forwarded and re-wound to your favourite parts.

-TV shows were all about winning appliances like a toaster or vaccuum cleaner, maybe a big prize would have been a small car or a holiday in the nearest foreign country. Grandad used to buy pools tickets and spot-the-ball at the newsagent.

-All news was delivered once a day, in print.
posted by everydayanewday at 7:26 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did a quick check and I don't see the Beloit Mindset List here mentioned by name:
Each August for the past 11 years, Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., has released the Beloit College Mindset List. It provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college. It is the creation of Beloit’s Keefer Professor of the Humanities Tom McBride and Public Affairs Director Ron Nief. The List is shared with faculty and with thousands who request it each year as the school year begins, as a reminder of the rapidly changing frame of reference for this new generation.
Though it's not always well-written, and some items are contentious, every once in a while there'll be something on the list that will really show a shift in culture, like "Rap has always been mainstream."
posted by peagood at 7:29 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, both of my jobs didn't exist when I was in high school or college (in the 90s), never mind when I was in elementary school in the 80s. Writing off technology as a big "so what?" is flat-out wrong and incredibly short-sighted. The internet has transformed how we gather information, process the world, and communicate with one another. For my blind mother, technology has enabled her to manage her own banking, shopping, and correspondence, when in the 80's she would have been dependent on sighted assistance. While malls sill exist, I can't remember the last time I went to one to purchase something. Maybe seven months ago, and that's because the Groupon I had required an in-store purchase. Television has become a legitimate art form that attracts many big name stars that previously would have only considered movies and possibly theater. The Berlin Wall fell and the USSR is no more. That in itself is HUGE!

I think you are spot-on about cultural attitudes towards race, sexual orientation, and alternative lifestyles being starkly different. While we are not post-any of these things and there is still much to work out, we have made great strides (in the US at least) with a black president, legal gay marriage in some states, and gay people being allowed to serve openly in the military. Legal gay marriage didn't exist and was not even a common topic of discussion in the 80s. Our attitudes and understanding of HIV and AIDS has transformed enormously in the past thirty years. Also, our treatment and management of the disease is very different. Similarly, our understanding and treatment of mental illness and addiction has also evolved.

I apologize that this has been a bit stream-of-consciousness. I feel like there are so many things that are so very, very different. The world does not stand still for over thirty years. Things change, sometimes gradually, sometimes drastically in one heart-stopping moment. The arts, medicine, human relations, politics, & society in general have continued to reinvent themselves and in, most respects, have grown leaps & bounds. Frankly, your friend sounds like a bit of a hater who wants to find something to nitpick in order to undermine your success and interfere with your personal sense of satisfaction about what you have accomplished. He's dead wrong and makes himself sound stupid by trying to assert 1989 and 2009 (or 2012 or 2019) are virtually the same. Wow, I honestly can't imagine someone making that argument with a straight face. Brush that ish off your shoulder & congrats on the book!
posted by katemcd at 7:36 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few memories:

1988: We have to replace the TV when my parents decide to spring for cable, because the old guy only gets 13 channels. Cable includes maybe 20 channels. My dad becomes obsessed with CNN because you can watch the news and political programming all day. I'm more into MTV, which is a channel that shows music videos.

1990: My parents splurge on a desktop PC which runs on DOS and has three programs that have to be loaded on floppy disc in order to run. You have to know the proper command to type in at the prompt if you want to even have a chance of running the program.

1994: Through gifted kid activities, I make friends with a girl who lives in the next town over. We lose touch because I can never call her. Her home falls into the category of "long distance" according to the phone company, and it would be exorbitantly expensive. She lives ~20 miles away. In 2012 we are Facebook friends and chat regularly despite the fact that she lives in Singapore and I live in New York.

1995: I tape Star Trek: TNG every Thursday night because it comes on while I'm at choir practice. This seems like an extravagant luxury. Now I find it a chore to keep up with the latest 5 episodes of a show on Hulu.

2000: my grandmother waits with me at the gate in the airport to meet a flight. This was somewhat rare by then, I'll grant -- normally she'd have needed to show a boarding pass, but the completely unarmed rent-a-cop let her past the checkpoint because I was getting on a plane to move across the country.
posted by Sara C. at 7:38 PM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, in reference to gay marriage and paternal leave and all that - we aren't out of the woods on that.

In the US parental leave is still mainly the mother going on disability. Some companies give longer parental leaves, but it's not the norm.

Most of the "cultural" changes (women's rights, homosexual recognitions, black rights) people are referencing began BEFORE the 1980's and still haven't concluded in a steady cultural acceptance.

I missed your friend's comment about the BttF reference, but he's absolutely right. The culture divide would be before the shifts began - you'd have to go back about another decade on that.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:32 PM on July 24, 2012

[Answers not arguments please folks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:37 PM on July 24, 2012

For example, it's hard to imagine a new Leisure Suit Larry type franchise being invented in today's climate

In today's climates we have video game franchises that show sex with hookers then killing them. In today's climate we send rape victims to prison for naming their rapists. The details are different, sure, but the themes? Not in any way better for women.

(sorry if this seems to be reposting...I already posted this in a previous comment and now it seems to be gone. Not sure why. Breaking original comment into three sections.)
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:37 PM on July 24, 2012

And then there's the fact we live in a somewhat dystopian present, something of a proto-Minority Report type society with "Homeland Security" and swat teams in every town.

Has security increased since 1980? You betcha. Has it increased to the extent of a swat team in every town? Not really. Some towns can't even afford police and fire. Not trying to be argumentative (I guess?) but that's my best answer to your question.

If things were actually as you say they were, I would answer your question in agreement with you "yes, the world has change much". But things are not as you say they are, and that's why I agree with your German friend.

I think the easiest thing to do to get perspective on this issue, and perhaps help your overall issue (I'm guessing: "can I make this story work?") would be to put yourself in your character's shoes for a day. Doing that I think I would feel annoyance, not culture shock, at going back to 1989 (I mean, besides the shock of "holy crap, time travel!").

I'd be surrounded by heightened security (due to the Cold War still being in effect - I remember being a kid and riding in the car past train routes guarded by riflemen). Not much different than now.

You'd see cars built in the 1980's on the road. The first car I ever owned was built in 1984 (I owned it in 2000ish)

If I got a job, I would probably be resented/harassed by my male peers. Four years ago I worked with one male colleague that would, without telling me, perform my lab maintenance duties. I would tell him to stop but each week he'd do them and tell me I shouldn't get my pretty hands dirty. The male colleague in charge of lab management would report this to the SI as me not doing me work. This second manager would also text me while I was in the tissue culture room saying presentations/meetings had been moved/delayed and I would show up at the new "right" time only to find they hadn't been moved and people had been waiting on me. So harassment and discrimination in the workplace, not much different from now.

If I got a job, it would be expected it was temporary until marriage. I've had coworkers in the last six years comment it wasn't right so-and-so was returning to work, because now she was married. I've met people who refuse to call a woman by the name she presented them, because they knew she was married and they would only call her by her husband's name (even though they originally knew her by her maiden name).

If I were raped, I might not report it for fear of people not believing me or thinking it was my fault. 90% of women still do that today.

If I wanted to marry a female partner, I would be unable to. Today, I still cannot do that in my state.

The BIG things in life, for me, would not change. My work and home life would be unaffected.

The little things would be the different things. Did they still have to add fabric softener to washers? I never understood those "I forgot to add the softener!" commercials. I would have to remember to bring some change with me for payphones (the disappearance of pay phones has been the biggest culture "shock" for me). There would be, like, seven channels of TV that I find dull instead of 200. If I wanted to find something out, I might have to go to the library or I might have to wait a few hours for people to respond to online message boards (instead of minutes).

In the past paperwork all needed to be typed and filed by hand. Currently (at my job) do everything on computers! ....and then print it, and mail it and file it by hand.

No, in the past I might not have immediate access to people from around the world, but today I may have conversed with people around the globe and not known it - it's not essential, or even noticeable to my life.

I think it might depend on someone's role. The average's person's life has not changed dramatically since 1980, which is what I would expect to be a big factor for society to be considered "changed as a whole".

However I believe certain people's lives have changed - as some individuals above state that have jobs due to technology (though likely if the technology did not exist they would have trained for jobs in other fields). If the average woman went back in time? Annoyance. If a doctor or diplomat went back in time, she might have more difficulty as the lack of technology would cause a dramatic impact on her work.

I think the crux of the time travel "culture shock" would lie in a lack of familiarity. If you sent someone from 2012 back to 1989, everything would be familiar - attitudes, devices, etc. When you start hitting the 70's, 60's, etc there are unfamiliar items and attitudes and that would cause a huge difference. Likewise if you went forward maybe ten years, and had a woman go from 2020 back to 1989 that might be more dramatic.

But again, 2010 to 1989, nah.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 10:01 PM on July 24, 2012

In a 1989 published proposal by Stuart M. Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation called "Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans," which included a provision to "mandate all households to obtain adequate insurance."

In 2009 almost every single Republican in office voted against the Affordable Care Act because they were against the individual mandate that all households obtain health insurance.
posted by Green With You at 10:26 PM on July 24, 2012

Just watch ET or Paris, Texas. Nothing much has changed.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:06 PM on July 24, 2012

People who truly believe that we're still living in the 80s are sometimes surprised to find otherwise.
posted by flabdablet at 2:30 AM on July 25, 2012

Starbucks arrived in the UK in 1994. Twenty years ago here, coffee was Nescafe. Now people don't think twice about spending £3 on a takeaway coffee. Chains like Pret have made sandwiches gourmet, rather than something cheap on white sliced bread. People have different indulgences. The food culture in the UK has changed beyond recognition in 23 years.

In my job, we get advertisements submitted digitally to a central system, and we e-mail people with queries. In the past, we had to get tapes biked round by a courier, ingested in a huge machine, and communications were done by fax and filed away in physical form. Work was very different in terms of the office. Smoking indoors was frowned upon by the time I started work in 2003; it was banned by the late 00s. Yet not long ago people used to smoke at their desks as they worked.

This was a great series - it concentrated a lot on the big events of 1989, obviously, but the difference even in the tone of reporting is interesting.
posted by mippy at 3:31 AM on July 25, 2012

This is kind of a silly, subjective argument. Once you pick a side, you can cherry pick examples and dismiss others as small changes in degree.

Culture changes at the fringes and the information age and the long tail effect have expanded these edges. Look at food: Sure, most Americans eat the same crap, but there are mainstream options now: organic, localvore, vegan. I can leave my downtown office and choose from a dozen Twitter-marketed gourmet food trucks.

The shine of car culture is fading for youth cultures. Your car is no longer a status symbol to get you laid in many circles. Taking the bus only has a stigma in backwards places.

Community service isn't just for church and National Honor Society folks. How you serve your community is as much of a status symbol as what you drive used to be.

GBLTQ acceptance. Gay kiss on network TV? Yawn, no big deal.

The death of the news media. My hometown newspaper of record is now as thin as the alternative paper. (And a few years back that alt weekly won a Pulitzer for a pretty mundane scandal story that the old boys club passed up for decades.)

Barely anybody ever says "respect the office, even if you disagree with the man" about the President now that the Right has a turn at attacking.

Constant war that regular people can mostly ignore instead of the threat of nuclear war.

Acceptance of nerd and geek cultures. Nobody knew what an emoticon was before. Computer programming was an esoteric skill. Anime was for weirdos. Now I see teenage nerd cliques that are more gender balanced.

Tattoos are incredibly more mainstream. Yoga, too. Smartphones at the dinner table.

The list goes on. If you think you are a dragon trapped in a human body, there is a community for you on the Internet.
posted by Skwirl at 6:49 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The obvious technology changes (smart phones, etc.) have led to changes in how people think about all kinds of "content," whether it's simple facts (findable on Wikipedia, IMDB) or more structured productions (books, music, movies) -- there's more than anybody could take in, and the product of ages is available easily. That means that (a) there's not so much emphasis on what's new this year (are any of this summer's movies going to be good? if not, we'll just work our way through the Oscar winners or other greats from years past), either as a limited resource or as a unifying cultural element, and (b) we've off-loaded all kinds of parts of our brains, whether it's facts we might have prided ourselves on memorizing, or shopping lists of things (that we'll buy on Amazon, or rent from Netflix, or whatever) -- even things that are important to us may only be recallable by looking back through our own blog posts. That's something I'm not sure I could have explained to my 1980s self...
posted by acm at 7:19 AM on July 25, 2012

Gay kiss on network TV?

This is a great point.

1980: There's an openly gay character on network TV. Mainstream religious groups like the United Methodist Church instigate letter writing campaigns against this. Despite the fact that said character actually has sex with women on the show! Said character could not even be portrayed as being in a relationship, and in fact he and his male love interest couldn't even touch.

1991: First gay kiss on American network TV, between two characters who weren't regular cast members on the series in question.

1998: Will and Grace is (probably?) the first TV series to have a gay character as one of the main cast. Will never has a long term relationship during the entire eight season run.

2000: Queer as Folk is a cable series which openly deals with gay life, including dating and sex.

Fast forward 2012: I am listening to a podcast which references Queer As Folk and remember that twelve years ago, it was unusual and revolutionary to have a TV series closely follow the lives and relationships of gay people. It now does not seem weird to me for mainstream TV shows to have openly gay characters and deal with gay themes, including sex and romance. And, frankly I have a feeling it wouldn't seem weird to my parents, Republicans, conservative Christians, or other people who are a lot less culturally liberal than I am.
posted by Sara C. at 7:29 AM on July 25, 2012

However, there was a Heinz ad in 2008 that got pulled as many thought it contained a gay kiss (it didn't, the husband wasn't married to a New York diner chef, it was a metaphor) and were offended. Incongrous as soaps like EastEnders and Coronation St had gay characters for years at this point (fun fact: the first gay kiss on British TV was on the teen soap Byker Grove in 1993).

This ad
ran in the late 1990s, ffs, and our Queer as Folk started around the same time, with a fairly young character having explicit sex scenes.

I wonder if the modern equivalent might be trans rights - but again, Coronation St has had a transexual character, Hayley, for about fifteen years and her gender status is now treated as a background detail rather than the only storylines she's allowed to have.

This is interesting.
posted by mippy at 7:55 AM on July 25, 2012

Remember in "Back To The Future" when 50s people couldn't understand the vest Marty was wearing, asking if he was in the Navy, thought it was his life-jacket? If your 2012 kid is pierced and tattooed, that's what the 1985 people would be noticing -- recoiling in horror, if it was a girl.

in the 90s, the gossip rag culture we have today didn't really exist,

Oh, of course it did (maybe you just didn't notice). The National Enquirer and its clones have been available at the supermarket checkout all my adult life (which began in the early 1970s). Even before that the news-stands were loaded with celebrity--gossip magazines (and I know they go back to at least the 1940s).
posted by Rash at 9:01 AM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

You should check out the UK TV series Ashes to Ashes, which was the sequel to Life on Mars. It featured a female detective apparently going back in time to the period 1981-1984, and was all about this type of culture shock. They got a lot of mileage out of the sexism of the male police officers at that time, the fact that people could smoke anywhere, the mad 80s clothing, etc etc.

I think the internet has to be the biggest change in everyone's life. Clay Shirky compared it to the invention of the printing press in terms of long-term ramifications and it's amazing how quickly we've all adapted to it. I'm 30 and I can barely remember life before instant access to information.
posted by Encipher at 9:20 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Growing up in small UK towns in the 80s I've seen a lot of difference.

I basically walked to school on my own from around the age of 10. Only a couple of years later during holidays and at weekends I'd be out of the house from mid-morning until 10-11pm, either on my own or with friends may be popping back for meals. That's unheard of now.

I wasn't very sporty, but kids that were, would play footie in the streets or in local parks. Now soccer is very organised and very middle class. I can literally remember only one time in the last few years I've seen kids playing in the streets.

Every single kid had a bike to get around. Even the unfit ones. They were 'racing' models. Mountain bikes did not come in until the end of the decade. Bike helmets were for pros. Some older teens would get a moped.

There was only one kid in my entire school who I would class as seriously obese and literally only one adult in the entire town who was notably fat too.

I didn't actually go in a McDonalds until my mid-teens when I went to my local city with friends. There wasn't one in my home town. No Kentucky either.

I didn't have a proper sit down curry in an Indian restaurant until I went to university in a big city. Though Chinese take-aways and restaurant were common.

There were a lot more family owned / independent shops and small chains / regional supermarkets. My small town could support an independent book shop, a stationers, an art shop as as well as a WH Smiths. There was also a second hand bookshop and a regular book stall on the market.In fact markets were much more of a thing.

You got into music by watching Top Of The Tops, The Tube, what friends' liked and listening to John Peel (the latter if you were really into music.) People bought a lot of music second hand.

You found out about what films were coming out by watching Film 80-whatever with Barry Norman.

I learned about what sf books were being published by reading Dave Langford's column in White Dwarf or by browsing in the few specialist shops that I had to go to a city to find. I remember it took me over a year to get a copy of Neuromancer after I had first heard of it. You could order books/records etc from shops but they would take weeks/months to arrive, if at all.

You had to buy two different magazines to see what was going to be on television (The Radio Times - for BBC and The TV Times for ITV and Channel 4) or buy a newspaper.

Newspapers were delivered to your door, as was milk, daily.

People would have a piece of paper in the wallet with their friends' phone numbers on it. You had to use phone boxes if you were out of the house.

There's a lot more people privately renting now than they used to be - big cities would only have one or two letting agencies. Now even towns have several.

Tattoos were rare / unfashionable. Only one of my friends at uni had one (and he didn't have it until after he left), though I knew a few ex-military people who had them.

Smoking was still pretty common - smoking on the top deck of the bus, still in some cinemas, the pub, restaurants, first place I worked had a smoking room.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:36 AM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

They got a lot of mileage out of the sexism of the male police officers at that time, the fact that people could smoke anywhere, the mad 80s clothing, etc etc.

For that matter, an easy test of this is to watch the first series of Prime Suspect, which first aired in 1991 and features all of this stuff. Except maybe for the clothes, though I remember seeing it a few years ago and thinking about how weird late 80's/early 90's fashion was.
posted by Sara C. at 9:47 AM on July 25, 2012

For me the biggest changes are: accepting homosexuality, the end of the cold war, and a tendency from the late nineties onward to create new music, styles, etc. that borrow from the past rather than are new. The kids today seem less of "their" decade than a pastiche of everything that came before, though that could be just because I'm old. :-) They also seem smarter and much more accepting.
posted by xammerboy at 1:20 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

St Elmo's Fire - 1985

I'd say that things have changed. I certainly hope they have.
posted by philip-random at 1:26 PM on July 25, 2012

in the 90s, the gossip rag culture we have today didn't really exist,

Oh, of course it did (maybe you just didn't notice). The National Enquirer and its clones have been available at the supermarket checkout all my adult life (which began in the early 1970s).

I'm not from the same country as you.

In the late 1980s, there were red-top tabloids which mainly dealt in kiss and tell, 'housewife' magazines mostly dealing in true-life stories, and the glossy press. The gossip magazine thing here began with Heat in 1999 - before then you might buy The People to read salacious gossip about Diana, but you wouldn't see a double-page spread of soap stars looking a bit ropey or intense speculation about the weight of relatively minor TV stars. The Daily Mail website's 'Sidebar of Shame' is a good indicator of what's new now - even the minor story of a star wearing an unflattering dress to the corner shop gets banged up online within hours, ready and waiting for us to comment on and dissect. In the late '80s, newsprint space was at a premium and even the most downmarket tabloid (which in the UK refers to a specific type of newspaper, not things like the Enquirer) would be unlikely to focus on off-duty celebs unless they were very famous, because they had to print some 'news' as well.
posted by mippy at 1:39 PM on July 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a lot more people privately renting now than they used to be - big cities would only have one or two letting agencies. Now even towns have several.

This is significant - in the UK at least the average age of a first-time buyer is now 37, because housing is much more expensive and getting together a deposit is out of reach for many. Many young people living in cities expect to rent all their life. In contrast, my sister and her then-husband - a supermarket worker and a mechanic - bought their first house at 21.

Also, yes, tattoos were for the working class, ex-navy, the military. It was considered extremely unusual - and lower-class if not deviant - for a woman to have a tattoo. Now in London I see more and more very visible tattoos on people, and it's unusual for someone 30 or younger not to have one. Also, body piercing and things like flesh tunnels.
posted by mippy at 1:44 PM on July 25, 2012

Here's a simple little thing that struck me, oddly enough while watching The Wedding Singer's depiction of the 80's: in the film, a girl is waiting at her friend's house when he gets home. Just sitting on the porch, waiting for him. With the ubiquitous connectivity we have at our disposal today, this simply doesn't happen any more; why wait for someone to get home when you have complete access to their whereabouts, and can drop a "let me know when your on ur way home" text instead of sitting around?

Also, in 1955, a teenager might be sitting at home on the phone all day. Ditto 1985. In 2000, having multiple telephone lines in a house -- never mind personal cell phones! -- is pretty common.

In 1985, you either showed up to watch the television show on TV, or you had to remember to tape it with your VCR. Now, you can call up just about every television show or movie on demand, without waiting or coordinating your life around timing, or buying videotape.

Granted, all of these examples involve technologies, but these are fundamental changes in the way we relate and communicate to each other...and to time management of those activities. We are very much oriented towards instant gratification, much more than in the 80s. The reduction of waiting for things between 1985 to now is tremendous. If Back To The Future was able to get a joke out of "What's a re-run?", then you can get a joke out of "What do you mean, what time does the show start?"

Oh, and just the image of people walking around looking at little screens is pretty damn hilarious as a marker of our time period compared to 1985. What would someone from 1985 think if you walked around staring at a little handheld screen all the time? Well, they'd assume you were watching television, and wonder where the antenna was. Tons of people wandering around not making eye contact with people next to them, while having a conversation with people in other locations; that's a pretty significant change in the way we interact.
posted by davejay at 3:24 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's bizarre to remember, but our schedules used to be dictated by the TV. Seriously.
"We can't do that tonight - such&such is on, it'll have to be tomorrow"
Certain times of the week were just pre-booked by the TV.

If a popular soap was running in primetime every night, you just couldn't organize group activities until later, on any night, ever.

Where I was, families tended to have dinner at the same time because of the 6-o'clock news. (Not EVERYONE, but it was a bit like going to church - most families you knew did it)

Certain times, the whole country was indoors, purely because of TV schedules and the habits that built around around them.

You only see that now for things like the superbowl.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:50 PM on July 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

No shops open on a Sunday and most would shut on Wednesday afternoons as well ('half day closing') and most shut at 5pm. Banks would shut at 3/4pm (and 12pm on Saturday) to cash up. I remember my local library shut Saturday afternoons.

Pubs were only opened from 11am to 3pm and from 7pm until 11pm (if you were lucky, in a lot of counties in the UK it was 10.30pm)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:21 PM on July 25, 2012

So, I'm watching the Olympics today.

One thing I've noticed this year -- and I didn't watch the games that closely in '08, so maybe it was the same then, too -- is how many of the athletes have visible tattoos of the Olympic rings.

I guess there might be some hardcore punk dropout subversive Olympic athletes, but probably not too many. These are very likely to be a cohort of rather clean cut and establishment-minded people.

I think this would have been totally unheard of in 1989.
posted by Sara C. at 6:53 PM on July 28, 2012

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