Thanks to Reaganomics, the 80s was a decade when the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Poverty rates skyrocketed, along with the national debt, while corporate bosses found themselves so inundated with money that they didn’t know what to do with all of it.
What exactly was Reaganomics? It was an ill-informed economic theory that said that governments should give big tax breaks to the largest corporations because they would use that money to benefit their employees and supercharge the economy. Even though the idea proved to be a complete failure, it is still the foundation of many economic policies today.
Poverty rates rose, houses fell apart, and cities became riddled with crime and drugs, all while corrupt CEOs were giving themselves raises. They used the tax breaks that Reagan gave them to provide themselves with bonuses, so they had more money than they could spend.
Large corporations had previously invested in their employees through things like skills training, education and housing benefits, and family leave. But with the de-regulation that came with Reaganomics and the greed that became rampant in the upper echelons, many of these programs were gutted.
Just as the decade began, a new disease began spreading in America, one that was initially referred to as GRID: gay-related immune deficiency. It was so-called for how it initially spread almost exclusively among gay men, but it came to be known more broadly as AIDS. It quickly spread outside of the LGBTQ community, especially among drug users and people who needed drug transfusions.
Reagan didn’t take the disease seriously, even though it killed every single person who contracted it. There wasn’t any funding for AIDS research until the end of the decade, by which time it had infected about 100,000 Americans.
The 1980s saw the rise of the Religious Right, and adherents to this ideology saw moral filth and decay everywhere they looked. Books, music, or movies with questionable morals for young people? Ban them, ban them all. For that matter, shut down the arcades and movie theaters, because it’s all filth.
Worse yet was crazy religious leaders who partnered with local law enforcement to prove that people were partnering with Satan to sacrifice babies, molest children, and have public orgies. If you were playing Dungeons and Dragons, then you were undoubtedly complicit.
So basically everything was questioned, and kids learned to be really secretive about how they were spending their free time. They hid the shows that they were watching on television and kept magazines under their mattresses. Everywhere there was a moral crisis, and heaven helps you if you should be caught in it.
Your high school teacher might have openly derided the f-word and told kids that homosexuals were abominations. Your PE coach might have called the kids in his class “retard,” with no reprisal from the school administration. Moreover, the racist phrases that people used against African Americans and Asian Americans were too much to repeat.
People weren’t just insensitive then. They didn’t just lack cultural awareness and training. They were straight-up cruel and had no reservations about saying the meanest things that they could come up with. Also, instead of being reprimanded, people met their insults with equally insulting phrases.
Car collectors who appreciate the 80s tend to jump for DeLoreans and Firebirds, the cars that we like to think of as emblematic of that decade. But most cars were giant, boxy land boats that no self-respecting collector would spend a quarter on today. Only the wealthiest CEOs had DeLoreans.
Not only did they look awful, but they were gas guzzlers. For that, we can thank the environmental protections that President Reagan rolled back, including regulations on emissions from vehicles. Today’s cars really are better than the ones that people drove in the 1980s.
Stranger Things did a pretty good job of documenting the atrocious styles of the decade, but still, the things that we remember about a decade tend to be its best parts. We like to think of the 80s as a decade of glitzy gold and bright neon shirts that had lots of sparkles on them. However, the reality was much, much worse.
Parachute pants were that bad, and the shoulder pads that came pre-sewn into just about all women’s shirts and jackets made them look like football players. Acid-wash jeans may appear fun in retrospect, but nobody looked good in them.
When VCRs began to catch on and could be found in more American homes (even though most kids had just one friend who had a VCR), they brought a considerable boon: kids could actually watch videos that had some degree of quality, as opposed to the censored garbage that might occasionally come on one of the three television stations.
But have you ever used a ballpoint pen to try to rewind the tape into a VHS or cassette? The struggle was real for kids in the 80s, and 90s, for that matter. However, by the second half of the 90s, we were moving on to DVDs and CDs, which had the tendency to scratch but didn’t have to be wound up any time they malfunctioned.
A full decade before computers could be found in most homes, purchasing a PC could quickly run you $4000 or $5000. Also, those PCs couldn’t do very much. They usually ran on DOS, a system that required you to type in coded commands to access any of the programs on the computer.
You may laugh at the cell phones that people had in the 90s, but they were nonexistent in the 80s. If you wanted to talk to someone who lived in another city, you had to pay long-distance charges. And of course, widespread public access to the Internet was a decade away.
30. Corded Phones Were Fun to Play With, But Not Talk On
It’s an upgrade from the rotary phone, right? For the uninitiated, corded phones were screwed into the wall. The receiver was bound to the telephone box with a cord, so you couldn’t go very far to talk to people. So if you wanted to talk with your boyfriend or girlfriend without your family listening in, your best bet was to go into the hallway closet and hope no one was tuning into the conversation.
The cord was fun to wrap around your finger, but that is about it. Oh, and banging the receiver as you hang up was certainly satisfying. However, there was also no caller ID, so you had no idea who was calling, and again, no privacy ever.
Girls who grew up in the 80s damaged their hair so severely that they didn’t recover until the 90s. After spraying it down with copious amounts of AquaNet before running a crimper through it, you could literally hear your hair sizzle.
For those who don’t know, a crimper is like a hair straightener, except it makes your hair look like you just took out hundreds of minuscule little braids. Those things were heated to upwards of 400 degrees before you ran them through your hair. However, the result was (not) worth it: sky-high bangs and hair fluffier than a sheep’s.
Disney’s golden age of animation was the 1990s when animators produced classics like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Disney movies from the decade before are the ones that keep popping up in Netflix feeds because they aren’t worth anything.
Consider The Secret Of NIMH, a modern fable about the National Institute of Mental Health. Then there are the atrocities of All Dogs Go To Heaven, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time (the original one, not the franchise that came after the golden age). Plenty of parents today wouldn’t consider showing those movies to their kids.
Kids in the 80s were pretty much forgotten by their parents. Even the name that was given to that decade – Generation X – suggests that nobody knows what to do with them. The epitome of this paradigm is the latchkey kids, who carried their keys on a necklace so that when they got home to an empty house after school, they could let themselves in.
Today, parents could lose custody of their kids for the neglect that was so common in the 80s. However, both parents worked, because the economy was tanking and no one had any money, and they didn’t know what to do with the kids anyway.
Have you heard stories about how kids who were missing were featured on the side of milk cartons? Those stories are true. Which means that if you were a kid in the 80s, pouring milk over your cereal or drinking a carton of milk with your lunch would leave you with a reminder that you weren’t safe.
The black-and-white photos of missing kids started showing up on milk cartons in 1982 because parents were so desperate to find their children that they wanted to put the message out everywhere they could. However, even though the intention was undoubtedly noble, the effect it left on kids was a bit deleterious.
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