Generations define eras just as eras define generations. While the powerful and the erudite send waves along the lines of social evolution, ordinary people too can help small currents oscillate towards historic events. Each generation can claim ownership of its eras; the era of its birth, its childhood, its middle age and beyond. And of course we do, often with rose-tinted specs, as we skip down Memory Lane and delight in every insignificant detail of our past. Here, we consider how the ‘big three’ have experienced fashion, music, food, technology and work through the ages.
Fashion is the most familiar depictive of an era. Regency? Empire line dresses. Vikings? Horned helmets. The 1920s? Flapper dresses and feathered headbands.
Baby Boomers grew up while fashion’s associations with politics was at its most manipulated. In the 1960s, nostalgic references were replaced with futuristic ones and rules were broken into tiny pieces so that by the early 70s, when many Baby Boomers were coming of age, the language of style was novel, to say the least. Exaggerated flares and platforms represented new silhouettes, new heights, new daring. Daring fell into the doors of Studio 54 doused in chainmail slink and sheer catsuits; and Afros were finally allowed to show their full potential.
By the time Generation X were old enough to dress themselves, fashion was approaching a counter to the Boomers’ era of extravagance. The 80s revved the engine on big (and expensive) statements but collided – smash – into the share crash that put paid to it all. The 90s slowed down with a long, deep breath of Minimalism, personified by Calvin Klein ads and Kate Moss in a simple silk slip. Then there was grunge; a spit in the face of fashion, yet somehow rendered phenomenal via Marc Jacobs’ slammed-at-the-time, grunge collection of 1992. Fashion houses taking cues from the street has since become the norm.
Millennials have known a confused age of fashion. By the noughties the fashion world was multi-pronged and nostalgia was rife again, perhaps due to the loss of a century, a millennium. The Internet confounded this by throwing trends around willy-nilly so that none were allowed to blossom before they died a death from overexposure. What has evolved from this is a fascinating first: anti-fashion. Essentially, this means no rules; staying one step ahead to avoid becoming a cliche; noting what’s deemed ‘in fashion’ and doing exactly the opposite.
The trajectory of technology
In 1975 IBM introduced the 5100 ‘Portable’ PC. It was 25kg. Computers were cumbersome when Baby Boomers first learnt of their existence, and were mostly reserved for the office. Phones they had, but big ones with long curly cords so that they couldn’t move about to find a private spot in which to chat to their boyfriends. When they made a call it took over a minute just to dial because they had to wait for the recoil spring action to boing each finger-hole digit back to the start before they dialled the next one. There was a lot of literal waiting by the phone after a date, and by the way they also had to show up to a date on time, or the date would just leave. They often used phone boxes at these times.
In 1983, Motorola released its first commercial mobile phone; it could muster only 30 minutes of talk-time before it needed to be charged again. This took 10 hours. These brick-sized behemoths generally belonged to loud-mouthed stockmarket traders but most Gen Xers didn’t have a mobile until beyond university. The 90s mobiles had green screens with black text, and text-speak was a necessity rather than a trend as they were limited to 160 characters per message, plus rendering each character could involve up to three key presses. WTF?
The Apple Mackintosh was by now considered old-school, and in 1998 the iMac G3 changed the game entirely. Oh, and the small matter of the Internet. Gen Xers had to wait 30 seconds to dial up via the home phone line and it was like being on Star Trek with all that crackling and screeching and beeping. Then came MSN Messenger chat rooms… but you needed to drop into an Internet cafe to take part.
Now, phones and computers are one and the same, and toddlers are more computer literate than some Boomers and Gen Xers. Millennials are also known as the iGeneration. According to Deloitte, 88 per cent of Australians now own a smartphone, the number of us streaming and watching live TV on our smartphones has tripled since last year, and 35 per cent of us check our phone within five minutes of waking up in the morning.
Since 1977, manufacturing’s role in the country’s economy has diminished exponentially, and new jobs have mostly evolved in services. Hail the era of the office, committed to celluloid by Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five movie and many, many others. There were no emails, no PDFs, no Microsoft Word, no Internet – and not too many women. Usually relegated to the steno pool, women had to put up with constant flirtations and the odd lecherous come-on because ‘sexual harassment’ wasn’t yet a thing. Cigarettes were rife, though: smoking and booze were perfectly every-day in a 1970s office.
By the late 80s, early 90s, when Gen Xers were joining the work forces, a craze of cubicles had changed the face of the office. This gave many a bored employee the chance to sneak a listen to their Discman/Walkman, and that was between cigarette breaks (they now had to leave the office to smoke) and a FULL lunch hour, not to forget the morning ritual of reading the newspaper from back to front, all to the mind-numbing soundtrack of a screeching dot-matrix printer. Oh, and this was an era when hundreds of business cards were handed out liberally.
Millennials don’t bother with this. They virtually share links to their own websites. But Millennials have their own way of procrastinating too, switching to the Instagram tab whenever the boss leaves the room, though it’s harder now the cubicles have given way to wide open floor plans. That is if a Millennial will deign to physically ‘go’ to work; many now prefer to work from home or hot-desk rental spaces, in cafes, on the train, via Google Docs or CMS on their phone. And working ‘for’ someone is less a thing now. Millennials work for themselves. It is the age of the multi-hyphens and digital nomadism. Millennials tend towards the entrepreneurial; multiple streams of income from several side ‘gigs’. They start blogs, create apps, become thought leaders and social influencers.
Food glorious food
Before the advent of the Breville Kitchen Mix, women would spend tedious hours pushing ingredients through sieves to impress their husband’s boss when he came over for dinner. Yes, dinner parties were all the rage. Fish and chips, stews and pies gave way to vol au vents, lobster mousse and devilled eggs. White Australia was eliminated and increased Asian and Middle Eastern immigration saw food choices diversify. The first edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook heralded this new era of international cookery. Corresponding was the 70s arrival of fast food chains Mcdonalds, Pizza Hut and Hungry Jacks. Convenience was the buzzword; and that Kitchen Mix saved a few hours a day (for the increasing number of working mums). Culinary highlights of the 70s include an infamous banana dish; stuck vertically through a pineapple ring then finished with a squirt of mayo and a cherry, it took phallic to a new level. Also, Vogue genuinely released a ‘Champagne diet’, which comprised at least three glasses of champers and three brandies, as well as oysters, lobster and a few crispbreads.
By the 80s it was surf ‘n’ turf followed by a slice of Vienetta, canapes of Jatz and cabanossi, pina coladas and After Dinner mints. More money meant more eating out, and this trend continues to grow. Gen Xers would remember the advent of ‘food products’; processed tucker claiming all sorts of health promises – everyone bought ‘low fat’ (read: high sugar, highly processed) and that continues too. Luckily for tastebuds everywhere, Tetsuya’s opened in 1989 and the Slow Food movement began fighting what has become a drawn-out battle with an increasingly dire national diet.
For Millennials it’s all about the post-coffee revolution – an age when cafes have taken over from pubs – and an ever revolving line of superfoods, from quinoa and chia to acai and matcha (the goodness of these cancelled out by the crazes for cupcakes, cronuts and macarons). Organic and gluten-free become the new low-fat.
Chefs are now celebrities and cooking is a competitive sport on reality TV. Millennials aspire to be foodies but are less inclined to cook so ‘healthy’ prepared meals and Uber Eats grow in popularity. Eating out is no longer deemed a special occasion, and every Instagram account worth its salt involves infinite birds-eye shots of freshly served meals.
Music to our ears
Baby Boomers love to talk about the rich, scratchy sound of a spinning vinyl, and it’s a notion adopted by hipster Millennials the world over. Like fashion, music enjoys resurgence through the ages. The Beatles and Rolling Stones are still popular, though it has been reported that some Millennials haven’t heard of Bob Dylan. In the 1970s, dropping a new song literally meant dropping a record onto a turntable. Less romantic is the memory of the cassette. If a Boomer or young Gen Xer didn’t strangle themselves with a curly phone cord, they may have done so with the squiggly tape pulled out of their favourite cassette by the family cat. Ah, those memories of holding down the fast-forward button for ages or forgetting it was on and having to rewind all the way back to the start. The first Sony Walkman of 1979 was as significant as the era’s hiphop music coming out of New York and LA, though that culture’s tendency to carry a ghetto blaster on the shoulder didn’t show signs of abating.
Gen X saw the rise of the CD. Hooray! Nirvana’s Nevermind! Green Day and REM! You could skip through the dud tracks to the hit singles and totally miss the artist’s carefully curated, storyful chronology. The first compact disc had more storage power than most computers at the time and was able to hold up to 80 minutes of uncompressed audio. Then again, the first MP3 players of 1998 had 32 MB of space, and 2001 saw the arrival of the iPod, onto which Gen Xers and young Millennials could upload hundreds of songs digitally. The iPod touch of 2007 had Wi-Fi and users could connect to the iTunes store and download tracks immediately. Streaming sites are now the standard and Spotify introduces millions of Millennials daily to the music of their Boomer parents’ golden era.