Spotlight on – the 1980s workplace

20years of Personnel Today - read more on our anniversary

With Personnel Today celebrating its 20th birthday and 1981-set Ashes to Ashes gracing our screens, it seems only natural to take a nostalgic look back at the ’80s – the decade of Donkey Kong, My Little Pony and deeply dubious fashions.

We tend to laugh at the 1980s. We look back smugly, but in terms of the workplace, how much has really changed? And has it changed for the better, or do we get a tear in our eye when we remember a time when the arrival of a fax made us feel all cutting-edge and groundbreaking?

Male dominated

For one thing, the office of the ’80s was much more male-dominated. According to the National Office of Statistics, in 1985 men filled two million more jobs than women. By June 2005, the ratio was much closer to 50:50. This feminisation of the workplace is due primarily to the increase in part-time employment.

Recruitment methods have come a long way, too. In the ’80s, candidates for jobs tended to be taken much more at face value – little was done in the way of background checks, or confirming the validity of CVs. The lack of technology made the recruitment process more personal, however, and staff loyalty was easier to win.

Alison Smith, communications director at recruitment firm Badenoch & Clark, says: “The educational backgrounds of candidates were less varied, and usually centred on A-levels and traditional university or poly­technic degrees. Now, experience and proof of being able to do the job seem to carry more weight – perhaps in light of a more fractured educational system.”

Temporary workers

The late ’80s saw the first sustained use of skilled temporary workers, with employers still jittery after 1987’s stock market crash.

What of the technology – or lack of it? Andy Powell, director of marketing at Badenoch & Clark, recalls: “I have vivid memories of being sent to deliver some typing to the ladies in the typing pool. It’s hard to imagine not having e-mail and the immediacy of communication that we have today.

“In the ’80s, you had to dictate a memo, get it typed, make amendments, then wait for it to be returned before posting it to colleagues. I’m surprised we ever got anything done.”

New technology

Yet it was a decade of real technological development: the first Apple Mac computer went on sale in 1984; 1986 saw the first widespread use of laser printers; the first business was registered in 1985; the ubiquitous Post-It note arrived on our desks in 1981; and the worldwide web arrived in 1989 – surely the biggest single change to the way we work.

Through our rose-tinted glasses, many of us look back with affection on the pre-BlackBerry days. Rita Dugan of Bournemouth University says: “Stress levels were not as great in the ’80s, as technology did not allow instant responses to enquiries. People tended to talk to you rather than converse electronically. This meant that issues rarely became crises, because talking tended to solve the problem.”

But were the ’80s really that great? Just two decades on, it’s almost impossible to imagine working in a smoky environment, relying on faxes for up-to-date information and having to wear shoulder pads.


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