The late 1980s was a unique period in history, marked by distinctive fashion, music, and cultural trends. From the music and fashion to the political and social climate, we combed through data and our memories of this iconic time to recall what life was really like during the age of big hair and big dreams.
1. The Marriage Age Was Increasing
Prior to the '80s, early 20-somethings were getting married and starting families, committing to a lifestyle that's becoming less and less the norm in the 21st century. We have the '80s to thank for that, as, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for first marriage started to climb drastically at the tail end of the '70s leading into the decade of decadence. It's possible this growing figure was also responsible for the growing number of 18 to 29-year-olds that still lived at home in the '90s.
2. MTV Was Actually About Music
Back in the day, MTV was actually about music television and not reality shows. Launched in 1981, the platform entertained its growing audience with round-the-clock music entertainment, from videos to news about popular bands. Children watched MTV before school and came home anxiously hoping to catch their favorite music video. The brand became part of music culture and introduced many to music icons like Michael Jackson and the brilliance of the “Thriller” music video (which aired second on the platform after Showtime's premiere).
Unfortunately, the channel isn't the same today. In fact, its focus on music videos saw a sharp decline from 1995 to 2000, when it slashed almost 40 percent of its usual programming and replaced it with reality shows and animated series.
3. Passing Notes in Class
Passing notes to your crush in class is such an outdated yet romantic art form. Where have the days of scribbling “Be Mine?” with little check boxes on a paper airplane gone? Well, of course, we lost the practice to texting, which feels like a completely impersonal alternative compared to the good ‘ole days of passing notes back and forth. Granted, there's less of a chance you'll have to sheepishly stand in front of class to read a note your teacher may have intercepted, but we love being stuck in an '80s romantic comedy.
4. The Music Was Amazing
Something must have been in the air to simultaneously give way to so many iconic legendary talents like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. Music videos were still a novel concept, though they tended to rival the production value of some TV shows (see “Thriller” for the best example). For some listeners, the music video served as a formal introduction to the band they've been obsessing over.
Rap and hip-hop were starting to take off at this point. The era's music can best be described as electronic dance music and classic rock. Not many things have aged well as we outgrew the '80s, but the music has.
5. People Spent More Time Outside and Less Time on Their Phones
In the late 1980s, people had far fewer options for entertainment than we do today, so they spent more time outside. Activities like playing sports, riding bikes, and hanging out with friends were commonplace. Unlike today, people were not glued to their phones, and being unreachable was not as big of a deal. This was the norm until fairly recently, but it's hard to imagine daily life like this now that everyone has an entire world begging for their attention in the palm of their hands at all times.
6. Less Technology Made Things Less Convenient but Simpler
Life in the late 1980s was more straightforward, with less technology to rely on. Personal computers were only starting to become popular, and most people still used typewriters, handwritten notes, and landlines to communicate. Although this made things less convenient, people were also less reliant on technology and had to rely more on themselves to get things done.
Without social media and phone addiction vying for their attention 24/7, there were fewer palpable distractions outside of TV. Speaking of TV, remember when you had to organize your entire life around that favorite sitcom or TV special when it was going to air because you couldn't record it or watch it elsewhere? Sure, we may consider that annoying today, but we long for those simpler times.
7. Fashion Was Insanely Extra
The late 1980s were a time of bold fashion statements, with neon colors, shoulder pads, leg warmers, and big hair being the norm. Both men and women wore tight, bright clothing and expressed their individuality through their wardrobes. We all wish we had something holding our lives together with as much strength and reliability as the hairspray holding up everyone's fabulous ‘dos.
We can objectively say the fashion of the '80s was pretty erratic, if not fantastically terrible. That being said, '80s-themed parties are always the most fun for this very reason. There's no such thing as mismatched, too bright, or too flashy. That's fundamentally '80s!
8. The Rise of Materialism
Even today, we're in love with our stuff. From bounties of electronics to massive wardrobes, we collect and collect until our personal space looks more like a museum of our favorite things. Just look at Funko POP figures and how they infested households throughout their reign as a popular collector's item. As it turns out, a love for material artifacts isn't new, and while there's been an underlying emergence of material culture for decades, it was the 1980s that is blamed for its boom.
Dubbed the “decade of materialism,” the '80s was about when the materialistic bubble burst. Maybe it was exposure to more extravagant lifestyles via outlets like MTV or just a natural progression of the nation's ongoing pursuit of the material that stemmed prior to the '80s. Whatever the reason, it resulted in a material world and turned us all into material girls. Or guys.
9. There Was a Stronger Sense of Community
The community played an essential role in people's lives in the late 1980s. People knew their neighbors and often participated in community events like block parties, church picnics, and local festivals. Face-to-face socialization was more prominent among friends and families, thanks to the complete lack of mobile devices that almost keep us at arm's length.
We could speculate that this was the byproduct of years of national division caused by the Vietnam War, and people were unifying over fears of the heightening Cold War and just wanted to drop the animosity, pull on their spandex, and hit the roller rink together.
10. Beneath the Happy Exterior, There Was Turmoil
Yes, as we just mentioned, the Cold War was still a thing in the 1980s. It may have been the tail end of the lengthy conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but nobody really knew that at the time, and the hostility between the two nations was on the rise. The possibility of nuclear war was always in the back of people's minds, and they were concerned about the threat of a global conflict. Couple this with the timing of the AIDS crisis that was claiming countless lives, and you will notice a bleak reality that countered the happy music and bright neon colors people wore.
Because so much chaos was taking over the world, televangelists were vying for the attention of the American people as people were desperate for spiritual guidance in a world of uncertainty. It may have been bright smiles and tall hair on the outside, but it was impossible to ignore some of the decade's more pressing matters. Especially with vocalists like Bruce Springsteen highlighting them in songs like “War.”
11. Privacy Became More of a Concern
You may think that issues regarding privacy are a rather new concern, but that's not the case. In fact, personal information has been a target for nefarious characters since as far back as the '80s. The catalyst? The use of computers in private and corporate settings. In 1984, TRW Information Services, which is best known as Experian today, had 90 million records stolen, making it the first major data breach. Two years later, the Canada Revenue Agency reported the loss of 16 million personal records.
Today, we worry about our personal privacy and go to great measures to protect as much of our data as possible, and we really have the '80s to partially thank for that.
12. Continuing the Family Unit (D)evolution
Though the '60s and '70s were known as a divorce revolution due to the adoption of no-fault divorce policies across the United States, it was actually 1980 that saw a record number of divorces. By the close of 1980, the divorce rate had hit a historic high of 22.6 per 1,000 married women. To put that into perspective, in 2007, the figure dropped to around 14.6 in 2022. From the '80s through the '90s, households with two parents steadily declined, which coincides with the steady increase in mothers entering the workforce that started around the 1970s.