14 November 2010

Materialism/Conspicuous Consumption In The 1980s - A Working Class Perspective

'80s moments - what do you remember?

Much is said and written about the "Greed Is Good" 1980s.

But what were they really like for your average working class geezer? And who was and is trilling "conspicuous consumption" and "materialism" regarding that decade?

Firstly, there is no doubt that the 1980s boomed - yuppies arrived and flaunted dosh hideously, Dynasty transformed the American night time soaps - including Dallas - with glitzy, OTT hugely expensive clothing, and many real, everyday people consumed more. There were more things first available or affordable for a start - think mobile phones, compact discs, personal computers, microwave ovens and VCRs.

My family started the decade as they had lived through the previous decade - with a wonky black and white TV and no phone, in a council house which had no central heating, wooden sash windows (which iced over on the inside in the winter and rattled and let in the draughts something awful!) and a kitchen and toilet prefab attached to the back of the house. The prefab had actually been condemned since 1971, and there was a slight gap between it and the house which had developed over the years, where the wind blew through.

And we certainly couldn't take three square meals a day for granted.

I left home in 1983, but my family ended the decade with a VCR, a phone, colour TV with remote control, and microwave oven. Their council house had been extensively modernised in 1987, the prefab removed and a new brick kitchen added, together with new windows and central heating. They now had an upstairs as well as a downstairs loo. The family was eating better food - at least three times a day - and viewing with great interest the blossoming mobile phone and personal computer markets and satellite television.

These things became part of their lives in the 1990s.

By the late 1980s, the cry had gone up from the great and the good: what a greedy decade it had been; we'd been too obsessed with money, possessions and style - how awful we'd been.

What truly hacked me off at the time was that the people making these pronouncements were well heeled journalists and BBC types. And, compared to us, their lives had always been highly materialistic.

And when had these big greedy years that suddenly were the entire 1980s actually happened? 1980? Don't make me laugh! 1981? Pah! 1982? Give me my deelyboppers!

The boom times had been from around 1984 to 1987 in my estimation, when the stock market crash put the frighteners on the yuppie types and things got a little wobbly.

In the years following the 1980s, it has been a great comfort to many to scapegoat the decade as the start of materialism writ large. But when you consider that, in the 1970s and early 1980s, many of us working class folk lived in housing and with facilities that would cause your average 21st century geezer to have a fit of the vapours, it's hardly surprising that we wanted new stuff and wanted to be part of the modern technological world.

And much of the stuff in my family was brought through mail order catalogues on easily repayable terms, just as they'd always shopped for larger items during my childhood.

The people making "greedy '80s" statements now are many and varied. It really is a comforting thing to scapegoat one decade. But the voices are still loudest from the comfortably heeled Guardian and BBC types - and that gets right up my nose!

Round my way, we certainly weren't saying, "Chortle! Chortle! Consume, consume!" in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were just emerging from the long, grey, poor-as-can be 1970s and early '80s, and we went: "Crickey! A VCR! And we can rent one! Isn't that brilliant?!!" or, "A microwave oven? Well, if you're sure they don't give people radiation poisoning, it would be out of this world to be able to cook like that!"

Wikipedia tends to try and glamorise the 1970s and write the 1980s as very ugly indeed, and a lot of that is simply claptrap.

That's not to say that everybody was happy in the 1980s, far from it - unemployment more than doubled in the early 1980s, from one and a half million at the end of the 1970s. Genuine stories of '80s traumas make for heart rending reading or listening.

But the fact remains that for millions of us life improved a great deal, we became better fed, had more material comforts and better lifestyles.

The fact is also obvious, to anybody with a few brain cells, that the view of the decade so familiar to us all, touted by the likes of the BBC, is simply a ridiculous comic book caricature, based on trying to make everything in the 1980s look horrible compared to the mythically beautiful 1970s.

And that view of the 1970s? Ridiculous! Hippies truly were a cutting edge thing of the mid-to-late 1960s, and the only hippie types I encountered in the 1970s (and, indeed, 1980s) were well-heeled, middle class people. That was always the case.You couldn't be dirt poor and drop out!

Punk was the real, fresh and happening thing of the 1970s.

Oh, and to all those reading this who think I was a rabid Tory in the 1980s and that this post is leading up to a great dollop of praise for Maggie Thatcher, think again: I gave up my nice office job and went to work as a care worker in a Social Services home for the elderly in the mid-'80s. I also took the greatest of pleasure in voting Labour (Old Labour, that was, not New).

But to wear tacky, cheap Miami Vice style clothing and be able to have some home comforts and experience modern technology gave me great pleasure.

These days, I'm probably the least "materialistic" person I know - I don't have a TV service subscription, no mobile phone, no microwave oven, no washing machine even.

But that's my choice. I like to rough it, it doesn't give me any right to preach or feel superior.

I wouldn't call your average working class person of today, with a houseful of nice furniture and modern technology (far more than we had in the 1980s), greedy.

But there are many amongst the great and the good who see it as a regrettable trend started in the so-bad-they're-unreal 1980s.

And, coming from their moneyed backgrounds, everything on tap and taken for granted, that makes me seethe!


Anonymous said...

The filthy working classes, rising up from their 1970s hovels in the 1980s and wanting nice things? The swines!

Dave M said...

Yeah I'm with you on most of your points. As I recall we didn't actually get truly affordable VCRs, TVs, Microwaves etc until the late 80s though. I'm pretty sure as the decade closed for example our TV was still rental and a good holiday to spain or wherever was still a real stretch, nowhere near as affordable as it is now.
Maybe the most significant fact missing from your commentary though is the fact the average man in the streets wages were still below what we would consider 'decent' by todays standards, even adjusted for inflation. When I started work in 1989 for example My first wage was no more than £50 a week...!

Drew said...

Youth pay rates were always less - and still are, though, Dave. My wife was on £10 a week when she left school in 1974 - terribly low even then. When I left school in 1981, I was on £34 per week!! By midway through the 1980s, then in my early twenties, I was comfortable.

Anonymous said...

Things are much worse for youngsters working nowadays. Employers are not bound to pay you an adult rate until you're 24 or 25 - around halfway to 50! Thanks to New Labour, which was a damn sight worse than old Tories.

Sammy Watts said...

When I started work in 1988 my wages were well over £100 a week.

Anonymous said...

I used to work shifts in 1988 when I was 22, 1 short week, 1 long week. My take home wages on the short week were £88-something, and my wages for my long week were £130-something.

I like this article - there's definitely something rotten in the way the current day totally scapegoats the 80's.

Sal said...

You've brought some reality to bear and for that I thank you!

Sal said...

To Dave M;

We first rented a VCR in 1984, had colour TV by 1981, and got a microwave in 1986.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it! Well done.

I must be about the same age as yourself so we both remember the 70s as kids. When some whiney little know-all starts lecturing me about the evils of Thatcher's Britain in the 80s, I tell 'em, "Don't believe everything your lefty failure lecturers tell you - the 70s were pretty nasty."

Drew said...

Well, I loved the idea of a '70s revival, although I have few fond memories of that decade, I loved the negative energy and anger of Punk. It was when the decade was made out to be a fantasy 1960s, all "peace and love", that I grew puzzled, and when 1980s pop culture began to creep into it, I was even more puzzled!

It's worth remembering as well that the kids "dropping out" and turning to hippiedom in the mid-to-late 1960s were of moneyed backgrounds. You couldn't AFFORD to drop out if you were working class! My mother worked in a launderette and my step-father worked for a removal firm - both worked long hours in the '60s - and beyond - and both recall the hippies as "druggie wasters".

Youthful idealism is a fine thing, but to give full vent to it you need the time and energy. And, if the 1960s were anything to go by, plenty of drugs and casual sex, too!

Anonymous said...

Things are a lot more boring now than they were in the 1980's. We seem to be stuck in an endless era that began circa 1994 and just goes on and on. Technology may move on, but people are so BORING. Thanks for the reminders of a decade which was anything but boring.

Anonymous said...

I agree, beyond the music the 70's looks like a really depressing time to live through; not an 'innocent' and 'carefree' one that is constantly fed to us. My dad agrees too, he said the only technological advancement he'd benefitted from in the 70's was a colour tv from around 1976 whilst in the 80's seemingly being bombarded with microwaves, colour tv with remote, micro computers, central heating, cd players, even a bloody indoor toilet...and it being UPSTAIRS!

Being born in 1990 i was thrust from birth into the benefits of thatcherism. Dont get me wrong i think she was a horrible bitch for what she did to the miner's, steel workers and dockers and such (plus the horrid side of privitisation; making things like water and gas way more exxpensive than in the past) but there's no denying that without her tory government's push for the masses to have nice things was beneficial for future generations (like mine).

The image of 'greed' is one of, dare i say, jealousy or bleeding hearts who had it but dont want to admit anymore that they did.

Anna W said...

Great article! The people shrieking "greedy '80s!" now have no idea of the kind of the poverty many of us experienced before the 1980s - they're basically smug, useless 21st Century finger pointers! It just makes them feel better.