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Millennium series: 1980s and 1990s

  • Candice Atherton Women's Channel Editor
  • 1999 31 Dec
Millennium series: 1980s and 1990s
Continuing our millennium series, we look back at the last 20 years.

In recounting recent history, the danger of transplanting historical facts with personal memories looms large. In fact, reviewing the past twenty years and their long term impact may even be moot as it still lies ahead. Nevertheless, I will attempt to avoid unnecessary citations of such phenomena as Cabbage Patch dolls (Rubiks cube, Elmo, Pokemon), Valley Girls (Madonna wanna-bes, grunge), and ET the extra terrestrial (Star Trek the movie, and the Hollywood version of the Titanic.) (Did I just write those out loud?)

Yet the 1980s and 1990s were the backdrop for a number of events that render them the most significant decades of the 20th century. From a raging bull market to totally radical social consciousness to wars that, like, werent really wars, as a nation we will not forget these decades.

Its the economy . . .
Under the Reagan administration, the United States economy enjoyed one of its most prosperous decades. His implementation of deep across-the-board tax cuts managed to actually increase the share of federal income taxes paid by top wage earners from 35% in 1981 to 46% in 1988, while managing to cut the top marginal tax rate from 70% in 1981 to 31% in 1988. A combination of monetary policies to restrict inflation resulted in more than 21 million new jobs and a Dow Industrial Average that grew from less than 1000 in 1980 to 2000 in 1987.

The words Black Monday still plague the memories of 1980s investors who scrambled to sell as the market sustained its largest loss in history. On October 19, 1987, the Dow plunged 508 points, dropping 22.6% and tossing away $500 billion in stock market value.

But during the 1990s, the Dow continued on its upward path, swelling from less than 3000 in 1990 to more than 11,400 today, creating an unprecedented bull market for long term investors. The last 20 years have boasted a tenfold increase in daily average share volume on the New York Stock Exchange, from roughly 50 million in 1980 to more than 500 million in 1999. That same period saw the NASDAQ through its infancy stages into a mature, 15 year old index that surpasses the daily average share volume of the NYSE.

These years were not without crisis, as the American taxpayers ended up paying approximately $200,000 billion in the 1989 Savings & Loan Crisis . Despite the decade of prosperity, the exorbitant cost of the bailout represented a breakdown in public institution, calling the American confidence in its economy into question.

A social consciousness
In the record books, the 1980s have become known for creating the Me generation and adjusting the American dream to form a society of power mongers chanting the mantra, You can have it all. But despite its reputation, the 1980s also boasted an awakening in social consciousness. Celebrities became pivotal in the nonprofit world with their endorsements of such charities as USA for Africa, made famous by the conglomeration of artists known as We Are the World. Their single not only helped the cause of hunger in Ethiopia, but it became the best selling single of all time.

Looking outward did not end with We are the World as the Apartheid movement in South Africa angered the nation and institutions began divesting of companies that conducted business in South Africa. The result was a steady isolation of South Africa, creating sufficient economic hardships to force its government to make concessions and end Apartheid. The legacy of that divestment movement persists not only in South Africa, but in the United States where it gave rise to the socially responsible investing industry. By allowing investors to avoid owning companies that fail to uphold their personal values, individuals are now empowered to do their own research on the activities of corporate America through the use of such tools as The Investigator.

Continuing the tide of social consciousness, the maturation of nonprofit sector has been impressive in the 1990s as it was fueled by a strong economy and developments within the sector to increase efficiency and dramatic growth in donations. Following the Jim Bakker PTL scandal of the mid 80s, religious charities fell under scrutiny and discovered the need for a more regulated industry. To avoid the threat of government intervention, several prominent religious leaders gathered to create the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, creating an accreditation process that has increased the publics trust. Other watchdog groups continue to monitor the operations of secular charities, and in total the non-profit industry has been enjoying annual increases in donations that are more than ten times the annual rates of inflation.

Trials we endured
Who can forget the numerous legal trials the nation has witnessed in the last 20 years? In the Iran Contra trials in the late 80s, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North made headlines because of his violation of a 1984 Act of Congress forbidding the United States to give aid to Nicaraguan contra rebels. North testified before Congress about his role in the affair as the public hurled comparisons to the Watergate scandal. But this time, North -- and the Reagan Administration he may or may not have represented -- cited motivations that earned the support of many Americans. North contended that he did not act out of a greed for power, but instead because of his commitment to promoting the American way of life.

Another set of issues arose out of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings 1991. The Bush administrations nominee appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about his background which included raising himself from poverty to become the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Before the scheduled vote in the Senate, law professor Anita Hill told the public that Justice Thomas had sexually harassed her while they had worked together at the Department of Education and the EEOC. The accusation opened a Pandoras box of social issues as it represented the first of such charges to be made about a public figure and then covered so thoroughly in the press. Hills charges were vehemently denied by Thomas, begging the conclusion that one of them was lying. After ten days of national debate on the topic and the inability of Hill to produce any witnesses to substantiate her charge, the Senate voted to confirm Justice Thomas to the Supreme Court.

The whole world is still reeling from the O.J. Simpson trial that invited couch potatoes across the country to view the enduring daily spectacle of a man who, as many still believe, got away with murder. The former football hero was charged with the murder of his wife and a friend but was acquitted after a lengthy and very public trial. In the end, the O.J. affair made several lawyers famous, provided the nation with television memories of a white Bronco fleeing police throughout the highways of Los Angeles, and left us doubting the story as we viewed gruesome images of a beaten Nicole Brown Simpson.

And then, there was Monica Lewinsky. This 24 year-old former White House Intern made a name for herself as her story succeeded in calling into question the national definition of acts that had heretofore remained very private, escalating the moral debate about the propriety of lying to protect ones self, and pounding the final nail into the coffin of disrespect for the Office of the Presidency. The only lasting impact of the Clinton Impeachment proceedings may be a nationwide conservative backlash as the American public regains its appetite for right over wrong.

Wars, but not quite
Star Wars connoted a different image in the 1980s. Named after the 1970s blockbuster movie, Reagans star wars represented plans to develop a space-based system to defend the nation from attack by strategic guided missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative was critiqued for its unrealistic objectives, but its mere proposal has been suggested to have participated in the end of yet another not-quite-war

The Cold Wars anti-Soviet sentiments had their roots in history as the Americans identified their enemy as the Russians. The rivalry even played itself out on a hockey rink in the 1980 Olympic Games when the upstart US hockey team performed a Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union. The Gold medal was perhaps a sign of things to come as communism weakened throughout the Eastern Bloc of Europe. Polands solidarity movement in 1980 sowed the seeds for an upheaval that infiltrated each of the Soviet Unions Eastern European allies. Movements for democratization and economic reforms shook the Bloc until 1989 when it was completely severed from its former protector, the Soviet Union. The most striking symbol of the split was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, representing a unification of East and West Germany and signaling the end of Soviet control in Eastern Europe.

Two years later, the world was riveted as the Soviet Union disintegrated into fifteen separate countries. For the United States, it was a conceptual victory that took place without a physical battle even though the threat of a nuclear battle had plagued both nations for years. The Soviet breakup launched a series of shifting alliances as the fallen superpower shuffled the worlds hierarchy.

The technology age
While other decades boasted significant advancements in technological inventions, no other period in US history can boast the delivery of advanced technology to the common man. In 1981, IBM introduced the personal computer for use in the home, office, and schools. Throughout the decade, PCs became more affordable and more popular as 65 million were in use within ten years of IBMs introduction. Typewriters across the country were abandoned as the PC changed workplace operations and the writing habits of a nation full of former hunt and peck typists. Local Area Networks allowed offices to reign in the potential of their powerful workhorses and served as the precursor for what has come to be known as the information superhighway.

In 1992, vice presidential candidate Al Gore promised to make the development of the Internet a high priority for his administration. But the 1991 introduction of the World Wide Web and its subsequent commercialization probably needed little assistance from Gore as the nation caught on to the promises of the Internet. Netscape lead the pack of browsers to enter the new frontier and continues to fight the browser battle against its biggest rival, Microsoft. Today, the Internet is home to 80.8 million users in the US -- ranging from computer scientists to children to grandparents overcoming their apprehensions with technology -- and e-commerce is projected to bring in $71.4 billion in total revenue in 1999.

Decades to remember, and not just because we still can. Their role in our nations history will be played out over time, but in terms of what seemed feasibly possible, these decades shocked the nation. Not only did we witness the fall of communism, the widespread infiltration of personal computers, a new snail mail moniker for our beloved US Postal Service, but we saw the dawn of political correctness, cell phones ringing in church, and the rebirth of bell bottoms. In the words of a great philosopher who came before me, Who knew?

To read yesterday's article on the significance of the 1960s and 1970s, click here. Also, be sure to give us your vote on the most significant decade of the century by using our Century survey. Or enter your own opinions on the matter in our Forums discussion.