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Anatomy Of A Decade

The Legacy Of The 80's Lives On In The World Of Small Business.

As we move into a new year--and, lest we possibly forget, closer to a new millennium--let us pause to consider Ronald Reagan, The Bonfire of the Vanities, "The Big Chill" and MTV. The 1980s were no joke. And though Oliver North, the Cold War and A Flock of Seagulls may be long gone, the '80s have, in many ways, set the stage on which we play out our contemporary lives. "We could argue the '80s never ended," says Gilbert T. Sewall, senior research associate at Boston University and editor of The Eighties: A Reader (Addison-Wesley). "Their so-called spirit has ended, but their legacy remains."

What exactly is this legacy? The knee-jerk reaction would be to dub the '80s the decade of greed. "The media constantly brings up this cliché," says Sewall. "It was more than that. It was a period of great invention and great energy." Cable television, microwave ovens, compact discs, fiber optics, satellites and ATMs were born, as were the first IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh. Sewall cites three monoliths that began their iron rule of America in the '80s:

1. Wall Street. The official term was economic stratification; the official attitude was that only suckers work for less than $200,000 a year. "There's every possibility the '80s will be remembered as a decade when the nation divided," says Sewall, who says the widening income gap is transforming us into a nation of "castles and trailer parks."

2. Silicon Valley. While Sewall finds it interesting that the entire Stanford University Class of 1972 seems to have e-mail, what intrigues him more is how technology "will affect the psychology of the young, how electronic learning will change children's ways of perceiving."

3. Hollywood. The celebrity culture, an obsession of the masses, continues full- force in the '90s. Likewise, Sewall notes, "If there's any [societal] macrotrend of the last 30 years, it would be the movement away from highly ruled conformity."

Sewall believes these are the factors that will be on the minds of entrepreneurs well into the new millennium, now less than 1,000 days away. "The issues of the 21st century are very much upon us," Sewall says. "And those social and cultural trends that either hatched or crystallized during the '80s are at the core of the new millennium's culture."

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This article was originally published in the December 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Anatomy Of A Decade.

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