What’s changed in the last 20 years?



Last week it was the twentieth anniversary of the day my dad died: inevitably a time for looking back, but also for pondering on what’s happened between then and now. So much has gone on in the family – the kids have grown up and married; a grandchild has been born – but it also struck me just how much in my daily life involves things Dad would know nothing about. Here are just a few:

1. PC’s for home use took off just after Dad died. I remember being most impressed by the fact that everything was in colour and that we could use them to find all sorts of information. At first it was mostly on CD Roms – remember Encarta? Now we take the easy, fast accessibility of information with pictures and videos for granted, moaning if we have to wait more than 10 seconds for something to download! We’ve learnt how “to google” and think nothing of using and performing that brand new verb several times a day. If there’s something we can’t do, we can probably find a demonstration video on Youtube. Twenty years ago, though, not many people even knew what the Internet was.

2. Where have all the books gone? Dad loved a good read, but probably would have been equally happy to find what he wanted on a computer, iPad or kindle – if he’d had the opportunity, that is. Personally, though I like to have a “real” book in my hands, I’m also happy that I can have hundreds of titles on the kindle in my handbag.

3. It’s amazing to think that Dad had never seen a mobile phone and yet 92% of the UK population now own and use one, the majority of them never going anywhere without it. This has meant that we can be pretty much contactable any time in any situation. Text messages are so useful! But they were virtually unknown twenty years ago. When my children were teenagers, I could know where they were, why they were late and how they were getting home, enjoying a level of reassurance unknown to my own parents and generations before them. And look at all the other things we can do on our phones too! Take pictures, make videos, watch TV, listen to music, read books, search the Internet…

4. We’ve got new ways to communicate: we can send someone an email or text and have their reply in minutes, if not seconds. This can be helpful if we’re waiting for important news or a crucial decision, though it seems a bit sad that a chatty, hand-written letter arriving through the post from a friend or relative has now become a very rare event. Then we have social media, too: we can see what our contacts are up to, share a joke or align ourselves to an interest or good cause on Facebook. It’s often easy to find old schoolfriends or people you’ve lost contact with. And for shorter, snappier messages there’s Twitter; for photos there’s Instagram; for pooling ideas there’s Pinterest.

5. Listening to music and watching films has drastically changed, too. Twenty years ago, CDs were just beginning to take over from records (33s and 45s) and cassette tapes, but I don’t remember Dad ever owning a CD. In the last ten years of his life he had recorded TV on chunky old videotapes and we’d bought a couple of Disney videos for the kids, but DVDs were still in the future for most of us. Now, even CDs and DVDs could be on their way out as we can just download and stream everything.

6. Dad would have been in his element with cable TV! As someone who enjoyed sport and films, he would have loved the freedom of all the channels we can choose from now. And as a documentary fan, he would definitely have been a frequent viewer of Yesterday and the Discovery channels too. Back then there were just the four terrestrial channels.


7. In the last twenty years we have made progress towards a cashless society. In London now, you can’t even pay your busfare with cash. Plastic is taking over. And I don’t often go into a bank, either, preferring to shift my little bit of money around online.

8. There haven’t been many changes in driving, although you can now buy an electric-powered car. The greatest difference for drivers, though, has to be the emergence of the satnav. No more atlases, maps or scribbled directions on a scrap of paper. And we no longer have to worry about getting lost, because the satnav will get you there in the end, even if it goes via the A40, M62 and across three farmers’ fields!

9. Most kids (and many adults!) don’t play real games any more – they exist in a virtual world on any screen they can get hold of. At least many games encourage interaction with other players, even if some people risk becoming socially isolated through their game habit.

10. The world is now full of pincodes and passwords, and you need a memory like an elephant to remember them all. Knowing it defeats the whole purpose of them, I try not to resort to writing them down. It’s tempting, though…

11. Staying in the same job for your whole working life has become a thing of the past. People have had to work more flexibly as situations change at short notice. Of course, some people choose to work more flexibly; for instance, in the UK about 14% of the workforce are based at home. Speaking of staying at home, internet shopping is now such an everyday occurrence that you seldom have to leave the house if you don’t want to!

12. Everyone is now a photographer with their phone or iPad and many people daily take multiple photos which they can send to friends or post on social media instantly. Remember when you went on holiday with a film of twelve pictures to be used sparingly? When you came home, it had to be taken to the chemist to be developed, not to mention paid for even if (as always happened to me) ten of the pictures were terrible and the other two hadn’t come out at all.

So have all these changes in the last twenty years been for the better?

In many ways, all these innovations have brought about improvements in our daily lives: things which used to be difficult are now easy and we have many more choices than we used to have.

But life has speeded up and become more complex. The continuing fast pace of all this change is a challenge in itself, and this is often stressful. People expect instant decisions, instant communication and instant action when sometimes it would be good to slow down, calm down and take time to weigh up the options. The workplace is not as secure or predicable as it used to be and that puts real pressure on family life. And there are other health issues (both physical and mental) relating to our more sedentary and (potentially at least) more isolated homelives.

The constant awareness of what others are doing has made us more competitive – something which most children these days know only too well. Even those who have not been victims of cyberbullying are acutely aware that they have to present an image to their peers. It’s scary to think that a recent survey revealed that English children are less happy than those in developing countries.

Keep it real.

children playing in rock pools

children playing in rock pools

I think we need to keep a balance. There’s no doubt that a lot of these new developments have enriched our lives, but we mustn’t lose sight of what’s real. By that I mean making a conscious decision to walk away from “progress” sometimes:

Eat food in its natural form.
• Encourage children to play active and imaginary games.
• Make things from scratch: recipes, birthday cards, clothes, household items.
• Use and reuse resources wisely.
• Meet with friends frequently for leisurely, thoughtful, enjoyable conversations.
• Enjoy and conserve nature.
• Notice and appreciate the little things in life.
• Keep a balanced perspective on what’s important and what isn’t.

Use your leftovers.

How to be happy

Develop your creativity

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