views updated

The 1990s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News



In the 1990s, with the U.S. economy booming and the unemployment rate at its lowest level in more than two decades, Americans had money to spend. In what some economists called a "luxury fever," consumers spent their money on bigger and more expensive television sets, automobiles, and houses. Even the fads on which Americans spent money seemed luxurious.

Americans went crazy for coffee during the 1990s. They enjoyed gourmet blends at neighborhood coffeehouses and bought specialty coffees to drink at home. In the 1980s, such companies as Peet's Coffee & Tea and Starbucks Coffee helped to make gourmet coffees more widely available through mail order, thus enhancing their popularity. By the 1990s, coffee bars and coffeehouses appeared everywhere, including strip malls, airports, and bookstores. Coffee bars became convenient places for men and women to meet and socialize. The appeal of coffee during the decade came about in part because the beverage gave consumers an opportunity to treat themselves to an affordable luxury.

Among the most unexpected fads of the 1990s was the incredible popularity of premium cigars. Throughout much of the decade, annual sales and prices of premium cigars rose at unprecedented rates. Sales of premium cigars more than tripled between 1993 and 1998. Many industry experts traced the origins of the cigar boom to the introduction of Cigar Aficionado, a glossy magazine that promoted not only cigar smoking but also promised its readers an upscale lifestyle. Cigar smoking especially appealed to young men and women in their twenties and thirties. Consequently, smoke shops, cigar bars, and cigar-friendly restaurants and hotels did a brisk business. By the end of the decade, however, the demand for expensive, premium cigars had begun to decline. Prices fell dramatically, as did the value of stock shares. Companies that had begun to manufacture and sell cigars at the height of the boom declared bankruptcy, sold off their remaining inventory at a fraction of its former cost, and went out of business.

Many Americans with extra money to spend simply gambled it away. Gambling enjoyed phenomenal growth and spawned passionate protests during the decade. A survey conducted by the gaming industry found that 89 percent of Americans had no objection to casino gambling, even though 33 percent said they would not go to a casino themselves. Backers of gambling estimated that it brought in $1.4 billion in tax revenue to state and local government coffers. Critics, on the other hand, maintained that for every dollar contributed in taxes from the gambling venues, tax-payers spent at least three dollars on gambling-related expenses—from repairing streets around casinos to increasing police patrols to treating compulsive gamblers.


On October 16, 1995, almost one million African American men, their sons, and their grandsons gathered on the Mall in front of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March sent a message to the U.S. Congress that the black community stood strong against the conservative Republican majority in Washington, which promoted cuts in social programs for the poor and needy. In addition, participants in the event showed America that racism and inequality would neither be ignored nor tolerated. Most important, however, the march brought together black men of all ages from across the nation and across economic lines to hear a message of self-reliance, family and community responsibility, and respect for women.

The one-day event featured an extensive array of speakers: Farrakhan, National March director Benjamin Chavis, National Rainbow Coalition

president Jesse Jackson, Congressman (and future NAACP president) Kweisi Mfume, Congressional Black Caucus chairman Donald Payne, Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, entertainer Stevie Wonder, poet Maya Angelou, and civil rights figure Rosa Parks, among others. The marchers gathered on the Mall for more than seven hours, pledging themselves to continue the fight against racism in American and to take unity and responsibility back to their communities.

To many, Farrakhan seemed a surprising figure to be at the center of a gathering of black men focusing on unity and atonement. As leader of the Nation of Islam, he had long advocated a drug-free lifestyle, commitment to family, and economic self-empowerment for blacks. He was just as well known, however, for his harsh views about white people, Jews, and American culture. His commitment to Islam and black separatism put him at odds with the majority of leaders in the traditional civil rights movement. Indeed, some African American leaders decided to skip the event because of Farrakhan. Others embraced the ideals of the event without publicly supporting Farrakhan.

In the end, what mattered most to the participants of the march was the camaraderie and spirit of the huge and peaceful audience of black men. Though the media reported the march primarily as a political event, those in attendance later described the march as a spiritual event—a transforming moment of repentance, change, and renewal.

A more secular (nonreligious) movement for men also captured headlines during the decade. In 1990, poet Robert Bly published Iron John: A Book About Men. The best-seller addressed a growing uneasiness shared by many men of the baby-boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). American society had changed, and this group of men felt they were missing something. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, they had not fought in wars that clearly defined good and evil. They no longer worked in fields and factories filled with other men. As the twentieth century ended, the women's movement and the increasing complexity of family and social life demanded a redefinition of masculinity in America.

Bly's book provided a narrative based on ancient myths of the "wild man." Modern males, he suggested, had lost contact with their manhood. Young boys, raised by their mothers in the absence of father figures, were no longer learning about masculinity from other men. They thus grew up unable to understand themselves as men and unable to project the certainty of their forefathers. Modern men behaved irresponsibly, found themselves paralyzed by fear, and were generally frustrated in their pursuit of fulfillment. The answer, Bly suggested, was to be found in reestablishing bonds with other men. The "wild man" within, he asserted, had to be rediscovered and given an opportunity to grow strong.

Early in the decade, following Bly's advice, a few men sought to recover their masculine ideal by joining men's groups where they beat on

drums, chanted, and bonded with each other during weekend retreats in the woods. Unfortunately, this activity became more popular as an object of ridicule than as a serious social outlet. Lacking organization, the men's movement failed to establish itself within the fabric of American culture and soon died out.


During the 1990s, unlike in previous decades, gays and lesbians tried to establish themselves in mainstream American life. At the same time, more Americans than ever before seemed to have accepted homosexuality. According to a 1998 Time/CNN poll, 64 percent of those questioned believed that homosexual relations were acceptable, while 36 percent thought them morally wrong. Twenty years earlier, 53 percent of Americans thought homosexual relations were morally unacceptable and only 41 percent found them permissible.

Many observers regarded the 1992 election of Democrat Bill Clinton as president as a turning point in the debate over gay rights, even though Clinton's support for gays sometimes wavered. Early in his first presidential term, Clinton had tried to lift the ban on gays serving in the U.S. military. When he finally compromised on the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which required all parties to stay silent regarding a soldier's sexual orientation, neither the military nor gays were satisfied. In addition, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in September 1996, which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Yet Clinton also ended the federal policy of treating homosexuals as security risks, and was the first president to invite gay activists to the White House. The message Clinton sent was that gays not only were an integral part of America but that they also were becoming an important political constituency.

Even the Republican Party, which traditionally had refused acceptance to homosexuals, had to respond. In 1998, the chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), made a point of welcoming gays. A few conservative Republican senators, including presidential candidates Orrin Hatch and John McCain, quietly moved closer to gay support groups on issues such as hate-crime legislation but remained far apart on the issue of gay marriage.

Acceptance of gays and lesbians into mainstream society sparked vocal opposition and inspired vicious hate crimes. By the 1990s, violent assaults against homosexuals were nothing new—but the October 7, 1998, savage beating of university student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, shocked the nation. Shepard died from his injuries five days later. A Time/CNN survey conducted at the time of Shepard's murder

revealed that 76 percent of those questioned favored increased penalties for those who commit hate crimes against homosexuals. By the end of the decade, forty-two states had passed hate-crime laws, and twenty-two specifically listed homosexuals as a specific class of potential victims.

Less violent, but no less injurious, was the growing backlash against gay rights in the decade. In 1998 in West Hartford, Connecticut, for example, the city council denied a gay couple's request to purchase a reduced-rate family pass to a municipal swimming pool. This incident, while hardly a major setback in the struggle for gay rights, nevertheless demonstrated to many observers a new set of barriers that gays faced. As the decade drew to a close, twenty-eight states had enacted legislation outlawing gay marriages. In February 1998, Maine became the first state to reverse a gayrights ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing and employment.

Although polls suggested that the majority of Americans accepted civil rights for gays, those same persons expressed uneasiness with the morality of homosexual behavior. In a 1998 Newsweek survey, 83 percent of respondents agreed that gays deserved equal rights to employment and 75 percent agreed that housing discrimination against gays ought to be against the law. Fifty-two percent believed that homosexuals ought to be able to inherit their partner's property and Social Security benefits. Yet only 33 percent supported the legalization of gay, or same-sex, marriage.

While the majority of Americans may not have been willing to accept families headed by two members of the same sex, the traditional nuclear family (father, mother, and their biological children) was no longer the standard in American society by the 1990s. Stepfamilies or blended families (father, mother, and biological or adopted children from a previous marriage or) represented the new American family. In 1999, there were already more than five-and-one-half million stepfamilies living in the United States.

Stepfamilies provided new living arrangements for divorced parents and adopted children, but many 1990s studies indicated that stepchildren were more likely to disobey authority, perform poorly in school, have to repeat a grade, or drop out of school. American children living in stepfamilies also were less likely to go to college or to receive financial support from their family if they did.

These studies provided ammunition for those Americans who supported "pro-family" social policies designed to discourage divorce and preserve the traditional nuclear family. Across the country, though, longstanding attitudes regarding stepfamilies began to change as men, women, and children who no longer identified with the traditional definitions of family sought ways to make their new families work. One example of the slowly growing acceptance of stepfamilies occurred in schools, as school officials began to acknowledge the increasingly important role of stepparents by accepting their signatures on school registration forms and field-trip permission slips.


Shortly after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968) and Robert F. Kennedy (June 5, 1968), the U.S. Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. For more than twenty years this legislation defined federal gun policy. It banned most interstate sales of firearms, licensed most gun dealers, and barred felons, minors, and the mentally ill from purchasing and owning guns. Culturally, the law represented a brief national aversion to gun violence. In the 1990s, however, gun-control legislation became more quarrelsome and less extensive, and Americans witnessed a rash of mass shootings during the decade, many involving teenagers and children.

Although juvenile crime declined throughout the decade, the number of youths killed by gunfire increased an alarming 153 percent. Statistics suggested that one in twelve high school students was threatened or injured by a classmate with a gun every year. The growing sense among many Americans that no one was safe from unpredictable gun violence fueled the continuing debate over gun control.


For many Americans, the preferred vehicle of the 1990s was the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). Sales of SUVs doubled from 1990 to 1998, with more than three million sold in 1998 alone, making it one of the most popular vehicle types ever manufactured. SUVs are classified as a light truck. First introduced by Jeep more than two decades earlier, the SUV was originally designed for off-road driving and the towing of trailers and boats. Yet by the early 1990s, the vehicle became trendy as a family car, providing plenty of room for passengers and cargo. Like trucks and vans, SUVs also helped drivers to see over traffic, since they were built higher than a regular passenger car. To increase their popularity, designers made SUVs more comfortable, adding many coveted amenities such as CD stereo systems, cup holders, and leather interiors. By 1998, more than forty different models were available, including offerings from Ford (which produced the most popular model in the Ford Explorer), Jeep, Chevrolet, GMC, Nissan, and Toyota. Even luxury car manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz and Lexus marketed luxury SUV models for the discriminating driver.

According to a 1999 survey, 74 percent of Americans supported the registration of all handgun owners and 93 percent favored a mandatory waiting period for persons wishing to buy handguns. An additional 68 percent of those interviewed believed that military assault weapons ought to be outlawed, while 51 percent wanted to abolish gun shows at which weapons of all types can be bought and sold with little oversight. While estimates suggested that Americans still owned more than 235 million guns, the percentage of American households in which guns were present had declined slightly from the beginning of the decade.

Despite these statistics showing that most Americans wanted some type of gun control, the federal government was slow to act if it acted at all. Throughout the 1990s, political parties established gun control policy positions on in their platforms, politicians campaigned vigorously on different sides of the issue, and interest groups lobbied Congress and the courts to increase or reduce restrictions on firearms ownership. The controversy centered around the need to curb crime on one hand, and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which gave citizens the right to bear arms) on the other. Pro-gun-control advocates claimed that some sort of gun control was necessary to maintain public order. Anti-gun-control proponents argued that law-abiding citizens had the constitutional right to use firearms to protect themselves and their property.

Understanding the public's concern over gun violence and drug-related crime, Democratic President Bill Clinton (1946–) worked with the Republican majority in Congress to pass groundbreaking crime-control legislation. Requiring background checks for handgun purchases had been debated in Congress since the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan (1911–) on March 30, 1981, but there was not enough support for passage of stricter gun controls. In 1994, however, amid a flurry of public controversy and media coverage, the Brady bill became law. The bill was named for Sarah Brady, antigun lobbyist and wife of James Brady—President Reagan's press secretary who had been severely injured by a bullet fired from a handgun during the failed assassination attempt on the president. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (Brady Law) was signed into law on November 30, 1993 and went into effect on February 28, 1994

The Brady Law established a national five-business-day waiting period (a "cooling off" period) for new gun purchases and required local law enforcement to conduct background checks on potential handgun buyers. The waiting period applied only to handgun sales through licensed dealers. Transfers between private individuals, as well as sales at gun shows and over the Internet, were excluded. The law required a licensed dealer to provide information from the purchaser's application to the chief law enforcement officer where the purchaser resides within one day of the proposed sale. This application, verified by some form of photo identification, must include the purchaser's name, address, date of birth, and the date it was completed. Local officials were then required to conduct a background check. The law also made the theft of a gun from a federal firearms licensee a federal crime punishable by a fine of up to ten thousand dollars and imprisonment up to ten years.

Another gun-control effort that succeeded in the 1990s was the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (Assault Weapons Ban), which was passed by Congress in 1994. It made illegal the sale of nineteen specific types of semiautomatic weapons (those that reload automatically after firing). Though many other types of rifles, shotguns, and handguns are also semiautomatics, they were not included in the ban. At the time the law was passed, there were between one and two million semiautomatic assault weapons in circulation in the United States. The bill also banned copies or duplicates of the illegal weapons.

Road Rage

Incivility and rudeness seemed to penetrate every aspect of American life during the 1990s. This was no more evident than on the road, where American drivers became less considerate and more dangerous than ever before. By 1998, aggressive driving incidents—in which an angry or impatient driver tries to hurt or in some cases even kill another driver—had risen by 51 percent since the beginning of the decade. In several cases studied, 37 percent of those drivers used firearms against other drivers, 28 percent used other weapons, and 35 percent used their cars. Many motorists feared becoming a victim "road rage" more than being hit by a drunk driver. The phenomenon has since given rise to many books, articles, and special therapies that deal specifically with the problem. Studies have shown that increased traffic and longer commutes pave the way for shorter tempers and in some cases aggressive and dangerous behavior. Other factors that have contributed to the problem are the increasing popularity of trucks and SUVs, which, because of their height and weight, give a driver a greater feeling of power and invincibility than regular-sized automobiles.

While gun control measures received support from many law enforcement agencies, as well as Democrats in Congress and large segments of the public, these efforts were strongly opposed by many firearms enthusiasts, interest groups, and Second Amendment supporters. One of the most vocal opponents of the restrictions was the National Rifle Association (NRA), which opposed the Brady Law, the Assault Weapons Ban, mandatory waiting periods, and restrictions on the manufacture, importation, and sale of any type of firearm, including semiautomatic assault weapons. The NRA claimed that such laws infringe on the right to bear arms as stated in the Second Amendment. Moreover, the organization contended that gun-control measures fail to keep career criminals from purchasing guns because they do not acquire them through licensed dealers, but from private individuals or through theft.


The New Age movement of the 1980s was not so much a religion as a blend of several Eastern philosophies. It also combined elements of Native American shamanism, early Christianity, and the counterculture of the 1960s. The movement avoided specific religious beliefs, teaching instead the ideas of individuality, oneness with nature, and simple lifestyles. Surveys in the 1980s estimated that 80 percent of Americans were affected by some form of spiritualism offered by the New Age movement.

In the 1990s, the New Age spiritualist movement continued to evolve. Whereas New Age in the 1980s often dealt with otherworldly notions such as reincarnation, out-of-body experiences, and the supernatural or extraterrestrial, New Age in the 1990s focused on self-fulfillment and personal happiness. In the process, the movement and its ideas became highly visible in mainstream America. The number of New Age bookstores in the United States during the decade exceeded five thousand, and millions of New Age books, audiotapes, and videos were sold. New Age authors such as Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson published best-sellers, became spiritual advisors to celebrities, and appeared on television shows such as Oprah.

The embracing of the newly transformed New Age spiritualism by Americans was no more evident than in the workplace. Increasingly during the 1990s, the phenomenon of "corporate spiritualism" came to be introduced as a means of motivating employees by emphasizing their independence and responsibility. Indebted to the New Age movement, advocates of corporate spiritualism asserted that the success or failure of workers depends solely on their individual imagination and initiative. Organizational factors should not hinder personal achievement, productivity, or fulfillment. Corporate spirituality, experts contended, should instead enhance a worker's intuition, energy, commitment, and productivity.

Following this idea, corporations tried to provide individuals with a medium through which to satisfy their needs and realize their goals, ideally forming an alternate community and family. With enthusiasm and even love directed toward work, employees theoretically were supposed to transform what was once a chore into a tool to develop, nourish, and enrich their lives. In an effort to cement the link between employee self-fulfillment, job performance, and corporate profits, spiritual "innerrenewal" training programs gained momentum throughout the 1990s. A clear indication of the growing popularity of corporate spiritualism was the combined thirty billion dollars that American companies spent during the decade to promote it among their employees. The advocates of New Age corporate spiritualism thereby sought to foster employees's identification with a spiritualized corporate image, making work the means by which to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness.

Feng Shui

From the boardroom to the bedroom and every living space in between, the principles of Feng Shui (pronounced fung SHWAY) became one of the interior-design industry's hottest trends during the 1990s. Feng Shui (meaning literally "wind water") is based on the ancient Chinese theory of organizing positive energy or "Ch'i" in living and working spaces. It seeks to create the most harmonious balance possible between the exterior environment and one's living or working space, as well as the personal energy of the individual. Translating Feng Shui into everyday applications, the serious practitioner studies a space to make sure that everything from the placement of furniture to the room color to the pictures or mirrors hanging on the walls is in balance with the forces of nature. Architects also studied the theory to determine the best placement and orientation for a building to maximize its positive energy. Homeowners solicited the help of Feng Shui practitioners and priests to decorate their homes and offices in order to avoid the pitfalls of financial ruin, bad luck, and tense family relations that could result from being out of balance with nature.


Clothing trends for youth in the 1990s followed two music trends: grunge and hip-hop. Although the grunge look caught on quickly, it peaked in the early part of the decade, then disappeared. Unlike grunge, hip-hop style not only lasted throughout the 1990s but was adopted by youth of all ages and races.

A new fashion scene took shape in 1991 when the Seattle-based alternative rock band Nirvana released its commercial breakthrough album, Nevermind. Suddenly, the Seattle music scene and its image was embraced by Generation X (as teens and young adults were sometimes called). The music tapped into the sense of anxiety shared by many young people as the economy continued to spiral downward early in the decade. Grunge was a backlash to the power dressing and elitism of the 1980s. The look of rock bands such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana was emulated by youth around the country.

Generation X

The roughly forty-five million children born between 1965 and 1980 made themselves heard during the 1990s. Known as Generation X (from the 1991 Douglas Coupland novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture), these youths were depicted at first as cynical, drifting, hopeless, and lazy. But this portrayal was far from accurate. Unlike the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), who tended to grow up in comfortable circumstances and who have come to accept prosperity as their due, Generation X never could rely on that kind of success. They grew up in the 1980s during a recession, witnessed increased divorce rates and the hard reality of homelessness, lived in the shadow of AIDS, and entered a job market that was tight and less rewarding. Despite these obstacles, Gen Xers have shown themselves to be hardworking, ambitious, and confident. They were the first group to have grown up with personal computers. By the end of the decade more than half of them had completed or enrolled in more than one year of college. Committed to a variety of social causes and also dedicated to making money, this group represented an impressive $125 billion in annual purchasing power.

The new uniform was not only easy to assemble, it was cheap: vintage thrift-store clothes fit in perfectly. Loose-fitting pants, either old jeans or long shorts for both girls and guys, formed the basis of the look. Long-sleeved undershirts or ratty flannel shirts worn over T-shirts defined grunge. Torn corduroy jackets or old cardigan sweaters were

optional. Converse high-top sneakers, boots, and heavy-soled shoes (particularly Doc Martens) were preferred footwear. Baseball caps topped off the look. Like most trends, grunge eventually gave way to new fads. The rage began to ebb when twenty-seven-year-old Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound in April 1994.

While alternative rock brought grunge to the forefront in the early 1990s, hip-hop music created its own fashion empire throughout the decade. Hip-hop and rap, terms that were almost interchangeable, traced their roots back to black street music of the 1970s. This music, as well as its accompanying culture and fashion, grew throughout the 1980s and exploded in the 1990s. In 1998, for example, rap outsold country music, which was formerly the top-selling format in the United States. Rap sold more than eighty-one million compact discs and tapes that year. The growth of this musical format brought with it an incredible demand for its fashion counterpart.

The hip-hop look was diverse and evolved over time as it was adopted by white youth. One of the most enduring images of hip-hop, however, was baggy pants worn around the hip to expose underwear waistbands bearing designer names. Other essentials included pricey sneakers (sometimes worn with laces untied), hooded sweatshirts (known as "hoodies" and often worn with the hoods covering the head), and flashes of jewelry (preferably gold or platinum).

While these items defined hip-hop fashions, the look progressed: jeans that were extremely baggy at the start of the decade were merely loose by its end. Baseball caps that used to be worn backward faced front again or at least to the side. They also soon shared the top spot with ski caps (known as "skullies"). Hoodies made way for loose-fitting hockey jerseys, polo shirts, ski jackets, and varsity jackets. Sneakers paved the way for hiking boots.

Casual Dress or Dressing Down?

Uncommon in the early 1990s, "dressing down" at work—wearing casual clothing at the office—became very popular within just a few years. Employers and employees called the innovation casual day, casual Friday (the day of the week it would most often occur), or office casual. As casual days in corporate America became more common, everyone seemed to have lower expectations about dressing formally. Americans began to dress down not only on designated workdays, but all the time. Jeans and sneakers became acceptable attire to wear just about everywhere. Celebrities went out on the town in bike shorts and baseball caps, and supermodels sported T-shirts and jeans. Movie stars showed up for film premieres dressed in baggy sweaters and pants. Rock stars such as Kurt Cobain of the Seattle band Nirvana popularized torn jeans, untucked flannel shirts, and ratty T-shirts. Although young people latched onto the "grunge" look as their own, adults were not immune to its influences. Even President Bill Clinton stopped looking presidential, as photographers snapped photograph after photograph of him jogging in shorts and logo T-shirts.

Brand names also played an important role in hip-hop fashions, as many styles prominently featured logos. Jeans and shirts bearing the Tommy Hilfiger label were hot commodities, as was designer Ralph Lauren's Polo logo. African American labels—FUBU (an acronym for the slogan For Us by Us), Naughty Gear, Phat Farm, Pure Playaz, UB Tuff, and Wu-Wear—were particularly important in the hip-hop culture. Musicians and rappers such as LL Cool J, Tupac Shakur, Puff Daddy (who would also introduce his own line of fashions, Sean John), and Lauryn Hill helped to set style standards.

About this article

The 1990s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News

Updated About content Print Article Share Article


The 1990s Lifestyles and Social Trends: Topics in the News