The 1990s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview

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The 1990s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview

The 1990s was a decade of extremes and contradictions. Americans built bigger and more elaborate homes and drove more expensive automobiles, then worked longer hours to pay for them. Americans spent more, borrowed more, and went more deeply into debt. They drank more coffee, smoked more cigars, and turned gambling into a national pastime. Children struggled to deal with the pressures of the adult world to which they were increasingly exposed, and many were forced to adjust to new step-families. Meanwhile, a disturbing number of adolescent and teenage boys went on deadly shooting rampages that left dozens dead or wounded and a troubled nation asking why. Even as Americans decried the rise in gun violence, guns nevertheless found their way into more households during the 1990s than ever before. Men endured a crisis of masculinity. Gays and lesbians came closer to entering the American mainstream, yet they often faced violent assaults and an antigay backlash.

Mass shootings, many of them involving children or teenagers, dominated American headlines during the decade. There was a growing sense among many Americans that no one was safe from unpredictable gun violence. Yet the attitudes of Americans toward guns remained ambivalent. The percentage of U.S. households owning guns increased while membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA) declined. Legislation such as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1993) was offset by the passage of right-to-carry gun laws in more than thirty states.

The male crisis and the crusade for gay rights also made headlines. Pressured to be masculine in a culture that no longer valued traditional codes of manhood, many heterosexual men felt troubled and lost. Trying to create a movement to reclaim their masculinity, some men went into the woods to chant and to beat on drums, hoping to resurrect the "wild man" within. The movement soon died out. On the other hand, homosexuals led a movement that made their presence felt in all aspects of public life during the 1990s. They even inserted themselves into the mainstream of U.S. politics. Nevertheless, although the majority of Americans surveyed in 1998 believed that homosexual relations were acceptable, violence and a legal backlash against gay rights occurred throughout the decade.

In a time of extremes and uncertainties, Americans sought out spiritual direction, not only returning to mainstream churches but also exploring an array of spiritual alternatives. New Age spiritualism waned and prospered during the 1990s. Although the numbers of Americans willing to identify themselves as New Age spiritualists declined, the popularity of such gurus as Deepak Chopra suggested that spiritualism continued to assert an influence behind the scenes in American life. Indeed, spiritualism surfaced in some unlikely settings. The phenomenon of "corporate spiritualism" transformed the workplace in many companies, large and small. It motivated employees by emphasizing their individuality, their obligations to their employer, and their responsibility for their own happiness and fulfillment.

A high point for many in the decade—an event that was both political and spiritual—was the Million Man March. Organized by Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, the march drew almost one million African American men to the Mall in Washington, D.C., for a day filled with speeches and sermons extolling the virtues of family and community responsibility. The peaceful, uplifting event was the largest assembly of African Americans in U.S. history.

Americans relaxed many standards during the 1990s, including those regarding fashion. Offices across the country adopted casual dress codes. Although employers at first allowed dress-down Fridays or casual days during summers only, many companies adopted casual dress as a full-time policy by the end of the decade. In addition, young people, influenced by a new style of rock music known as grunge, started to wear loose-fitting jeans, old flannel shirts, and T-shirts. Some fashion designers incorporated these thrift store influences into their seasonal lines. Others catered to the growing hip-hop fashion movement that would come to dominate young America by the end of the decade.