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From Mixtapes to Malls: Why High School in the ’80s Was Just As Cool As Today — Or Better

Two women wearing 1980s workout clothes with towels over their shoulders.

From Mixtapes to Malls: Why High School in the ’80s Was Just As Cool As Today — Or Better

Published on September 22, 2023

Two women wearing 1980s workout clothes with towels over their shoulders.

Being a student in the 1980s had its own unique charm and advantages. Our kids may think we sound old and outdated when we talk about that decade — and perhaps we do — but there were a whole lot of things about going to high school in the 1980s that were pretty darn cool. Looking back, everyone can agree it was a pretty dynamic and influential decade with tons of unique cultural, technological, and fashion trends that defined the era.

From skateboards to Guess? Jeans to phones shaped like lips, we had a ton of cool stuff that even my high school senior sometimes admits look neat. Sure, we didn’t have smartphones, but man, did we pass notes! Lots and lots of notes, usually written on loose leaf paper with pens that changed ink color with a simple click. 

Keeping all our work organized was actually fun thanks to our Trapper Keepers, which happened to be one of my most prized possessions back then. Today my son does assignments on his laptop and anything on paper gets tossed haphazardly into his backpack, never to be seen in broad daylight again. That wouldn’t happen with the pockets and folder-like design of a Trapper Keeper (just sayin’!).

Here are some more things that were great about being a student in the 1980s:

1980s Music Is Still Some  of The Most Popular

The 1980s was a vibrant, dynamic,  and influential decade for music with a diverse range of genres and artists leaving a lasting impact on the music industry and pop culture. It gave birth to iconic bands and artists across various genres like pop, rock, hip-hop, and new wave. Students could enjoy the music of legendary acts like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and rock legends such as Queen, U2, The Police, Bon Jovi and many others. Concerts such as Live Aid shone a spotlight on issues like the famine in Ethiopia and featured various artists performing for free. Some of the biggest tours at the time included the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels Tour” (1989); Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl World Tour” (1987); and U2’s “The Joshua Tree Tour” (1987), which solidified their status as one of the world’s biggest rock bands.

Many 1980s Fashion Statements Still Resonate Today

The 1980s were known for their bold and unique fashion trends. Madonna and Prince were two huge influences, and tons of students experimented with colorful clothing, oversized sweaters, neon accessories, and distinctive hairstyles like big bangs and mullets (oh, the mullets!). Personal grooming was important, and students often carried combs or brushes to keep their hair looking its best.
High school students, in particular, stashed makeup, deodorant, and other toiletries in their backpacks for quick touch-ups throughout the day. Speaking of backpacks, while they may still be the #1 choice for carrying items to and from high school, back in the 1980s, we actually used BOTH straps and wore them with the weight of our textbooks and spiral-bound notebooks evenly distributed across our backs.

Many Forms of 1980s Entertainment Are Considered Iconic

The 1980s also produced a plethora of classic movies and TV shows that became cult favorites. Students could enjoy iconic films like “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “The Breakfast Club,” and “Back to the Future,” as well as popular TV series like “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider.”
Today’s game-obsessed high school students would have loved growing up in the 1980s, aka “the golden age of video gaming,” with the introduction of arcade games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, as well as the release of home gaming consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System. The 1980s also saw the era of VHS tapes and video rental store culture. Who doesn’t remember Saturday nights at Blockbuster, choosing which movie to watch?

Technology in the 1980s Is Nothing Like Today — But It Was Still Rad

The 1980s saw the rise of personal computers and the birth of the internet. While technology was not as advanced as it is today, it was an exciting time to witness the early stages of the digital revolution, which would shape the future of education and work. In the later part of the decade, pagers (beepers) became popular among high school and college students for staying in touch with friends or family. Pre-emojis, you’d get buzzed with a number or a special code that let you know who you needed to call. 

Social “Networking” In The 1980s

The 1980s emphasized face-to-face interactions, something today’s high school students are sorely missing. School dances and dance parties were the primary form of socializing in high school, and if you wanted to attend either you went with a date and rarely in a group of friends like today’s high school students.

While social media has radicalized how high school students interact, life in the 1980s was comparatively simpler in terms of distractions. Students didn’t have to contend with the constant connectivity and information overload that modern students face. This simplicity could make it easier to focus on studies and personal relationships.

A Few More “Items” That Students Carried Around With Them In The 1980s

Students in the 1980s carried various items with them to school and around campus, some of which were specific to the era and its unique trends. Here are some more common items that students carried in the 1980s:

A Walkman: The Sony Walkman was a portable cassette player that allowed students to listen to music on the go. It was a status symbol for many.

Cassette Tapes: Students often carried cassette tapes of their favorite music albums to listen to during breaks or on the school bus.

A Boombox: Some students, particularly in high school, carried large and bulky boomboxes that played cassette tapes and had built-in speakers. These were used to share music with friends or to make a statement.

A Lunchbox: Many students brought their lunches to school in metal or plastic lunch boxes featuring popular cartoon characters or pop culture icons of the time. By high school, most lunches were carried in brown paper bags whereas today’s students are more likely to eat school lunch or forego lunch altogether in favor of socializing.

Keychains and Keys: Many high school students in the 1980s needed keys to their lockers, homes, AND cars that were typically carried on a keychain. There was no coded access to anything. 

Wallets: Forget ApplePay, Zelle, and Venmo. High school students in the 1980s carried wallets to hold their school ID, lunch money, and personal items. Wallets of the 1980s often had Velcro closures and bold designs.

For those of us who lived through the 1980s as students, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia associated with the music, fashion, and cultural trends of the decade — no wonder it’s such a cherished period in their lives.

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