1992 nostalgia: The things we have and the things we’ve lost

Pricewatch: New market research highlighted how much we’ve changed in 30 years

For many people reading this, the 1990s will seem like yesterday but for someone who is 12 today, someone for who — let’s be honest, is probably not reading this — 1992 is as distant as the early 1950s were for a child who was 12 when Ireland was ole ole ole-ing and basking in the glory of Italia 90.

Pricewatch was prompted to have this sobering — okay, terrifying — thought in recent days when we highlighted a report from market researchers Behaviour & Attitudes which detailed just some of the ways Irish consumer sentiment has changed since 1992.

It got us thinking. While the 1990s might seem like the recent past for many of us, the reality is it is light years away from where we are now. Don’t believe us? Well, here are just some of the ways our world has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.

Things we have now that we didn’t have then

The internet: The biggest change in our world and the one that has made so many other things that would have been the stuff of science fiction — from online shopping to virtual newspapers, music and movies on demand and the oracle that is Google — possible. There was a sort-of internet in 1992 but it was pretty rubbish and virtually no one had heard of it. Even fewer people were using it. The world wide web was barely a year old at that point and The Irish Times on the web — one of the very first newspapers in the world to have an online presence, as we like to boast — was still two years away. There was some talk of technologies like Minitel using phones to change the world and computers were becoming more commonplace but, generally speaking, we were as wired in 1992 and we were in 1972. Truth be told most of us were as wired in 1992 as the world was in 1952.


Social media: One of the internet’s children — or devil spawn as some might have it — is social media in all its forms. In the early 1990s, if you wanted to find out what old friends, exes, politicians or random celebrities were up to in real time you would have struggled. Short of calling to their homes in the early morning, in fact, there would have been no way of knowing what people were having for breakfast, while if you wanted to find out what kind of fabulous time people you didn’t really know were having on their holidays or how their new exercise routine was going you would have been lost. Then along came social media and everything was turned on its head. Not only have social media platforms kept us informed, entertained and in touch with friends and family all over the world, they have also largely destroyed our attention spans, made us focus on the absurdly trivial minutiae in the lives of people we don’t know, created a world of conspiracy theorists — or at least helped them find each other and amplified their madness — and catapulted some singularly unsuited people to high office. So, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, all things considered.

Streaming: There was a time when we were utterly reliant on the capricious whims of broadcasters to determine what we watched and when we watched it. They even told us when we had to go to bed and sent us there to the stirring strains of the national anthem. We also had radio stations with overly chatty DJs to play us what they thought we might like or what they thought might make their employers the most money. A few DJs were great, most were terrible. We had to go to some trouble to acquire music and movies that we felt sufficiently strongly about to want to own and listen to in our own time. Now everything is available on demand at all times, day or night on our phones and our smart TVs and the listening devices that we have not only agreed to place in our homes — we have agreed to pay for them too.

Ebooks: “The question is, can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well-suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?” That was what one-time tech titan and latter day Stetson wearing space man Jeff Bezos famously asked a full 15 years ago. He was speaking as he launched the Kindle, the device he hoped would unseat the book. While it has not had the same disrupter impact that the internet has had on other carriers of the written world, its impact can be seen in the shrinking bookshelves in homes up and down the land.

Low fares: Almost exactly 30 years ago, the European Union rolled out its Open Skies regulations to almost no fanfare. Despite the low-key start, the move ended the decades-long stranglehold a handful of high-priced flag-carrying airlines had held over all Europeans. It allowed upstarts such as Ryanair take on big players like British Airways and Aer France and not-so-big (but still important in an Irish context) players such as Aer Lingus. Not only did Ryanair take them on, it crushed them and suddenly our world became a little less small, a little less insular. According to the European Commission, a family trip from Milan to Paris in 1992 cost 16 times more than it does now with the minimum price for a ticket on that route falling from more than €400 then to less than €30 on a good day now. The cost of the hour-long one-way flight from Dublin to London was about £200 which, allowing for inflation, is almost €450 today. We had a look on the Ryanair website just now and were able to get a flight from Dublin to London Stanstead for €11.99.

Work outs and stretches in the evening: There were probably gyms in Ireland in the 1990s but they were very much the preserve of gritty men who boxed. They were no pilates or spinning classes and the chances of finding fancy water infused with mint and cucumber were slim. There were certainly no gyms for the everyman and the everywoman. In fact, according to the B & A survey we mentioned at the start, the percentage of Irish people who went to a gym regularly in 1992 was an easy to comprehend zero. Today almost one in five Irish adults regularly visit a gym — or at least say they do which is not quite the same thing. Yoga was similarly unheard of in the Ireland of the 1990s. Today 5 per cent of Irish people regularly roll out their mats, steady their breathing and whisper namaste. While 5 per cent might not sound like a particularly high number, it equates to about 150,000 Irish adults which amounts to a shed load of Irish people looking for inner peace or the ability to touch their toes each week.

Processed meals: As many as 20 per cent of us eat ready meals now compared with just 3 per cent 30 years ago. One of the reasons for the big shift is, of course, that ready meals back in the day were, what is the polite way of putting it? Disgusting. They have come a long way since those dark days when the TV dinners as they were once called made airline food seem like Michelin-starred dining. Many ready meals today even approximate the kind of stuff you might cook yourself. They do tend to be loaded with sugar, salt and fat, which may go some way towards explaining why one in four Irish people is now classified as obese compared to one in 10 in the 1990s.

Ozone: In the early 1990s ozone depletion was one of the biggest crises facing the planet. It seemed like fixing the problem would be impossible. But it wasn’t. The world acted together, the harmful ozone-depleting gases found in fridges, aerosol cans and elsewhere were outlawed and slowly an equilibrium in the upper atmosphere was restored and then everything was absolutely grand when it came to the planet and its wellbeing. If only that was the case. While the world collectively solved the ozone problem, it has gone about the destruction of the planet with a ruthless and despairingly efficient zeal with temperatures soaring and habitats being destroyed at a ferocious rate. The growth of environmentalism and the recognition that we have to stop what we are doing and stop it now is at least one positive to emerge from the crisis. We just need to do more, a lot more.

A ban on smoking: Passive smoking was big in times past; even bigger than active smoking which was also pretty popular. People would think nothing of lighting up in your car or house whether or not you actually smoked and pubs were thick with cigarette smoke from the moment they opened until closing time. Then the smoking ban was introduced and suddenly we emerged from the carcinogenic smog we had created for ourselves. People in some quarters said it would never work but it did. People could go for a drink and come home without smelling like an ashtray while the smokers were suddenly the most social of folk hanging out in the cold with other like-minded people. A cousin of the smoking ban was the plastic bag tax. Remember when plastic bags billowed out of every bush in the land? Turns out all we needed to do to get rid of the scourge was to charge people a few cent for their bags and they’d turn their nose up at them

Online dating: One in five people in a long-term relationship in the United States say their relationship started in the world of online “dating”. The whole notion of swiping left or right or whatever you’re having yourself would have seemed outlandish in times past when the only way most people met other people was drunkenly in nightclubs during slow sets with Je t’aime or Careless Whisper as the soundtrack to their clumsy shuffling and awkward chat-up lines.

Things we had then that we don’t have now

Nightclubs: As many as 30 per cent of adults regularly went to such places in 1992. Hot spots around the country had their own idiosyncrasies. Some ended the night with the national anthem — like RTÉ TV did — some had slow sets, some served manky curries at midnight to get around licensing laws that mandated that late opening had to be tied to a “substantial meal”. Some played techno, others reggae or indie music. And then there was Leeson Street in Dublin which was a world of its own — or so we are told — with its high-priced wine and low-rent lounge lizards. The extension of pub opening hours sounded the death knell for most nightclubs. They still exist but the notion that there’d be more than a dozen of them along a 1km stretch of a small seaside town like Salthill in Galway seems astonishing today.

Phones: Even in the early 1990s, getting a phone installed in your house was a palaver. It was always in the same place and often attached to the wall. Most people don’t even use a landline nowadays never mind one that is always sitting in the one place. Difficulties getting a landline — or a telephone as it was known — meant that many of us relied on one of the more than 4,000 payphones dotted across Ireland in 1992. They came in all shapes and sizes and people would happily queue — well, happily might be a stretch — outside them and wait for others to finish their calls before making a call of their own. There were phones that accepted money, phones that accepted cards and even ones that could be encouraged to make free calls with the judicious tapping of certain buttons. Now there are only about 400 of them in the State and some are never used or at least used so infrequently as to make no difference. We also had the State-issued phone book and natty little books containing the phone numbers of those we cared about. Some of the high-end ones even had a spring mechanism which allowed users to fiddle with a dial in order to pop the book open on exactly the right page on which the telephone number needed would be written down. Written with an actual pen, that is.

Stupid watches: All watches did in the 1990s was tell the time although some digital watches did have calculators and stopwatches that were pretty fancy. Generally speaking though watches — for all the remarkable engineering contained within their little bodies — were still pretty dumb. They were certainly stupid compared to the oh-so-smart devices that people strap to their wrists today so they can be monitored every step they take. It’s a bit like having Sting on your wrist, if Sting could also measure your heart rate and send you alerts when someone likes a post of yours on Instagram.

A successful national football team: Who put the ball in the English net? Ole Ole Ole, We’re all part of Jackie’s Army, Come On You Boys in Green, etc. In 1988 and 1990 we qualified for major tournaments. We did so again in 1994, narrowly missed out in 2000 and we were back on the world stage in 2002. It was a 15-year period when we went from never qualifying for a major tournament to being almost regulars. We might get back to that point again under manager Stephen Kenny and his increasingly promising group of young players, but for now at any rate we might have to content ourselves with resting on the (sort of) glories of times past.

Proper holidays: People obviously still have holidays but just how real are the breaks from the real world when you carry around a device that allows you to keep in constant contact with people via WhatsApp, texts, calls and emails? In the 1990s when you went on holidays — overseas if you were fancy — you didn’t hear a peep from home and most definitely not your place of work until you got home. Today, people struggle to switch off.

Music you owned: The act of buying music on vinyl, cassette or CD, sometimes travelling long distances to get that music, seems wildly anachronistic at a time when virtually every song ever recorded can be accessed on your smartphone, frequently at no cost. Has all that music available all the time made the world a better place? Yes, undoubtedly. Has it diminished music and made it seem less special? Yes, undoubtedly.

Mix tapes: The art of the mix tape was honed over many years and the care that went into making each one depended greatly on the recipient. If it was for a friend or a classmate you could probably lash it out in slightly over the 90 minutes the tape ran for, but if it was for the object of your romantic affection, it could take days to get the mix just right. Building a Spotify playlist doesn’t have the same allure.

Ads on the telly: Who’s taking the horse to France? Tá siad ag teacht. Sally O’Brien and the way she might look at you. I don’t know what a tracker is. We still have TV ads but because of streaming and the ability to fast forward through the ads on live TV with the judicious use of the pause button, it is unlikely they will every have the same impact as they did in times past.

Photographs: We’d take pictures — not many — but the ones we’d take we’d keep and they would end up in photo albums. Now we take a million more photographs thanks the amazingly high quality digital cameras we carry around with us but do we value them as much?

Attention spans: Sorry, what was that you were talking about?