A society in transition

President Bill Clinton, 1993

Shifts in the structure of American society, begun years or even decades earlier, had become apparent by the time the 1980s arrived. The composition of the population and the most important jobs and skills in American society had undergone major changes.

The dominance of service jobs in the economy became undeniable. By the mid-1980s, capping a trend under way for more than half a century, three-fourths of all employees worked in the service sector -- for instance, as retail clerks, office workers, teachers, physicians and other health care professionals, government employees, lawyers, and legal and financial specialists.

Service-sector activity benefited from the availability and increased use of the computer. This was the information age, with hardware and software that could aggregate previously unimagined amounts of data about economic and social trends. The federal government had made significant investments in computer technology in the 1950s and 1960s as part of its military and space programs. In the late 1970s, two young California entrepreneurs, working out of a garage, assembled the first widely marketed computer for home use, named it the Apple -- and ignited a revolution. By the early 1980s, millions of microcomputers had found their way into U.S. businesses and homes, and in 1982, Time magazine dubbed the computer its "Machine of the Year."

Meanwhile, America's "smokestack industries," such as steel and textiles, were in decline. The U.S. automobile industry reeled under competition from such highly efficient Japanese car makers as Toyota, Honda and Nissan -- many of which opened their own factories in the United States. By 1980 Japanese automobile manufacturers controlled a quarter of the American market. Only by the late 1980s and early 1990s did U.S. manufacturers begin to match the cost efficiencies and engineering standards of their Japanese rivals, and start winning back the share of the domestic car market they had ceded to imports over the previous two decades. Although consumers were the beneficiaries of this ferocious competition -- and in other highly competitive industries, as well, such as computers -- the painful struggle to cut costs meant the permanent loss of thousands of jobs in the U.S. auto industry.

Population patterns shifted as well. After the end of the postwar "baby boom," which lasted from approximately 1946 to 1964, the overall rate of population growth declined and the population grew older. Household composition also changed. In 1980 the percentage of family households dropped; a quarter of all groups were now classified as "nonfamily households," in which two or more unrelated persons lived together.

New immigrants changed the character of American society in other ways. The 1965 reform in immigration policy shifted the focus away from Western Europe, and the number of new arrivals from Asia and Latin America increased dramatically. Vietnamese refugees, for example, poured into the United States in the aftermath of the war. In 1980, 808,000 immigrants arrived, the highest number in 60 years, as the country once more became a haven for people from around the world.

In the 1980s, additional groups became active participants in the struggle for equal opportunity. Homosexuals, using many of the tactics of the civil rights movement, sought the same freedom from discrimination that other groups claimed. Often pressure brought results. In 1975, for example, the U.S. Civil Service Commission lifted its ban on employment of homosexuals, and many states enacted anti-discrimination laws. Inevitably, a backlash occurred, and incidents of hostility toward homosexuals surfaced as well.

Then, in 1981, came the discovery of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), a devastating disease striking the body's immune system. AIDS is transmitted sexually or through blood; and in the United States it struck homosexual men and intravenous drug users with particular virulence, although the general population proved vulnerable as well. By 1992 more than 150,000 Americans had died of AIDS, with estimates of those carrying the AIDS virus ranging from 300,000 to more than one million. But the AIDS epidemic was by no means limited to the United States, and the effort to treat the disease encompassed physicians and medical researchers throughout the world. One of their earliest successes, largely the result of U.S. and French research, was to isolate the AIDS virus and develop tests to ensure protection of the blood supply.