American Life in the 80s
The 1980s were an exciting time for Americans. Many new types of technology and forms of entertainment were emerging.
What were some of these new items?
What was daily life like in the 1980s?
Families in the 80s
The American family was changing in the 1980s. Many families felt a need to increase their disposable income, and as a result, more and more women continued entering the workforce.
Additionally, broken marriages were becoming more commonplace with divorce rates reaching their peak in the latter half of the 1970s and remaining high throughout the 1980s. Also, many women were choosing to remain single and pursue professional careers. As a result, single parent families became a significant part of the American cultural landscape.
This led to an increased reliance on daycare, with many small children spending time in nurseries during the day.
Income and Prices
The average income for an employee varied throughout the decade. In 1980, the average salary was a little more than $19,000, while the average salary in 1989 was just over $27,000.
Of course, an individual’s salary largely depended on their chosen profession. The prices of various products rose as well. For example, the price of a new home in 1980 was about $68,700, yet by 1989, the average price of a new home was $120,000.
A new car might have cost someone about $7,000 in 1980, but in 1989, it might have cost more than $15,000. Once again, various makes and models of cars would have changed these numbers significantly.
The prices of other items might not have fluctuated as much. The average price of a gallon of milk in the 1980s was $1.70 and a loaf of bread was 86 cents. A good pair of athletic shoes might have cost about $55, while a nice blouse cost about $16. The average price for a gallon of gas was $1.15.
With increasing amounts of leisure time, the American public yearned for entertainment.
Technology in the 80s
Fortunately, there were several technological advances that allowed families to be entertained at home. One of the most prominent was the rise of cable television. While cable was available in the 1970s, it did not become a household feature until the 1980s. Cable TV introduced families to a much wider array of viewing choices.
Teenagers could watch the latest popular music videos on MTV (Music Television), while those seeking information could check out the around-the-clock news coverage on CNN (Cable News Network). Sports-minded viewers could tune into the sports network, ESPN, while children were entertained by Nickelodeon. Cable television also brought rise to children’s daytime programming.
Every day after school, kids would rush home to watch the latest episodes of GI Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and The Real Ghostbusters. Each of these programs had a successful line of toys associated with them. In fact, this type of programming often received criticism, as many adults believed that the shows were nothing more than half-hour-long toy commercials.
Network television still provided countless hours of entertainment for families in the evening. The most popular television programs included hour-long dramas such as Dallas and Dynasty. The Dukes of Hazzard, Magnum PI, and Murder, She Wrote were also highly popular programs.
Miami Vice, while only cracking the top ten in ratings one year (1987), had a significant impact on men’s fashion in the late 1980s. Several half-hour-long situation comedies were also popular, including Family Ties, Who’s the Boss, and Growing Pains.
The most popular program of the decade was The Cosby Show starring Bill Cosby. The Cosby Show topped the ratings chart every year from 1985 to 1990. Despite the popularity of television, many families were also going out to the movies in the 1980s. Raiders of the Lost Ark made Harrison Ford a box office sensation and established Indiana Jones as a legendary character.
Eddie Murphy also emerged as a rising star, featuring in movies such as Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hours. Other popular films of the decade included ET: The Extraterrestrial, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Back to the Future, and Top Gun. A number of comedy films such as Caddy Shack, Stripes, Porky’s, and Police Academy became classics of the genre. A rivalry also developed between two competing horror film franchises. Each year (except 1983) saw a new Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street film as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger became iconic characters.
However, Americans were no longer restricted to just watching movies in the theater.
The video cassette recorder (VCR) allowed families to watch movies in the comfort of their own home. Videocassette rentals became big business during the decade. Families could see a movie just months after the film had left the theaters. Additionally, the VCR allowed people to record a favorite television program so that it could be viewed at a later date.
Handheld camcorders also made it possible to record birthday parties, live performances, and other events that a family might want to emember.
Video games moved from the arcade and into people’s homes in the 1980s. The Atari 2600 was the first video game system that most families purchased. While the system was available in the late 1970s, it became a staple of family ntertainment in the early 1980s. In the latter half of the decade, the Nintendo entertainment System (NES) redefined the video game.
Many iconic video game franchises began on the NES, including Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Mega Man, and Final Fantasy. By the time the NES was discontinued in 1995, nearly 62 million of them had been sold.
Sports in the 80s
Americans found entertainment outside of the home as well. Professional sports flourished during the decade. The National Football League (NFL) produced numerous stars, including Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Their San Francisco 49ers won four Super Bowls throughout the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the 1985 Chicago Bears became a cultural phenomenon, even producing a hit song, “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” while on their way to winning the Super Bowl. The National Basketball Association (NBA) spawned a spirited rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Bird’s Celtics won three NBA titles, while Johnson’s Lakers won five championships. In 1984, Americans became enthralled with the Summer Olympics, which were hosted in Los Angeles. Gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Bart Conner became household names, and track and field star Carl Lewis won four gold medals. In boxing, Mike Tyson became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world in 1988.
In music, compact discs were available in some parts of the country, but they were rather expensive. Therefore, most families listened to their music on cassette tapes, and records were still fairly common.
The most popular performer of the decade was Michael Jackson. Jackson’s 1982 album, Thriller, became the world’s best-selling album, selling more than 66 million copies. Aside from Michael Jackson, other performers became famous as well. Madonna burst onto the scene mid-decade, producing seven chart-topping songs from 1984 through 1989, along with another eight that finished in the top five.
Rap music was also becoming a prominent force in popular music. Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J were amongst the most popular rappers of the 1980s.
The Beastie Boys album Licensed to Ill became the first rap album to top the pop charts. Trendy fashion became increasingly important in the 1980s, especially amongst the younger generation.
Fashion tended to mimic what was being worn in movies, on television, and by musical performers. As a result, teased hair and excessive makeup became popular. Many teenage girls also wore large hoop earrings, bangles, bracelets, and other accessories. Neon colors became prominent, and millions of kids began wearing athletic shoes made by either Nike or Reebok.
It should be noted that not every family experienced the 1980s in the same way. These were just a few of the broad trends that were predominant throughout the decade. Each family and each individual had a unique situation, with their own stories, tastes, and preferences.
Reading Through History