Work in the 1990s vs the 2010s: Which was better?

Written by Investors In People

Work in the 1990s vs the 2010s: Which was better?

The feel-good vibes of the 90s don’t seem that long ago—the introduction of New Labour, Cool Britannia and rockstars rubbing shoulders with politicians.

But 1999 was 21 years ago. And 1990 was 31 years ago! After a banking crisis that damaged so many people’s lives and a pandemic that has completely changed the way we work, here’s to hoping we can reignite that positivity in the 20s.

Don’t quote us on it, but we feel like it’s going to happen…

But was work in the 90s great? And was it better to work in the 90s than it is now? We’re going to take you on a trip down memory lane and give you our verdict. Feel free to disagree!

Smoking in the office

It seems unthinkable that anyone would dream of smoking in an office in 2021, but you were allowed to do it in the 90s – some places even had smoke rooms or allowed you to smoke at your desk!

While not all workplaces allowed people to smoke, some did. For example, the most common place would be your local pub! It seems strange that the smoking ban was enforced in 2007, which was only 14 years ago. 

No smoking at work has to be one of the biggest upsides of work in the 00s, 10s and 20s – and there’ll be no plans to bring it back!

Winner: 20s

When you’re off, you’re off

Our world is more connected than ever now. Even when we’re on holiday or ill, there’s a good chance that our colleagues will be able to get in touch with us. 

Whether through WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn, mobile or email – there isn’t much chance we’ll miss a message!

Rewind to the 90s, and most people didn’t own mobile phones or not the technologically advanced phones we own today (remember the enormous house bricks with aerials?!).

While it’s nice to be connected to your workmates, and our connected world has opened up many opportunities, we think the disconnected world of the 90s is better when it comes to being off work.

However, those who had to fake their ‘sicky’ voice to get a day off might disagree!

Winner: 90s

More stationery than Staples

Although office managers still have to make stationery orders in the 20s, they’re nothing compared to what they used to be.

And how great was it to have a nice pen? Especially with all the writing going on, not as much typing back then! Paper cuts were a threat.

What stationery did you have? Here are a few we thought of:

  • Calculator
  • Tippex
  • Fountain pen
  • (so many) labels
  • In-tray
  • Lever arch files
  • Paperclips

Fast forward to the 20s, and we’ve got everything we need in our phones and laptops (although you can never beat a nice notepad and pen).

While we certainly have more options, it can be a bit overwhelming, and you can end up with loads of ‘productivity’ tools that make you less productive.

We’re feeling nostalgic, so the 90s win this one!

Winner: 90s

Boozy lunches

One thing that always pops up when asking people about work is spending most of their time in the pub (which could often be funded by the company!).

It’s hard to imagine going to a pub for your dinner and having a few too many before heading back to work; it makes you wonder how anything ever got done.

Fast forward to 2021, and the equivalent of this seems to be the customary beer fridge or having a drink via a Zoom call.

And while we’re sure people have got plenty of juicy stories to tell from those boozy lunches, we can’t advocate that in this decade.

Winner: 20s

Opportunities galore

If there’s one thing the internet has done, it’s opened up a humungous amount of job opportunities for people all over the UK and all over the world. 

However, it wasn’t popularised until the 00s, so finding work in the 90s compared to finding a job in the 00s, 10s, and 20s was completely different.

While we can type up a CV on a Word Document or PDF these days, it was more of a struggle to do that in the 90s. And we don’t even have to worry about printers these days as we can send CVs off via email and internet job boards.

How many people relied on word of mouth, handwritten CVs, newspaper job ads and a bit of luck in the 90s? Or sent CVs off in a letter?

We have many more opportunities to find a job we love now, making finding a job more manageable.

Winner: 20s

Fax machines

Before the rise of email and sharing documents via cloud systems, fax machines were a common sight in offices. And they’re still used today, albeit more rarely.

The primary function of a fax machine sounds excellent, which is why they were so popular. Get a document, type another fax machine number in and wait for the document to send.

However, like most older pieces of technology, scanners were big and clunky and were prone to breaking – which wasn’t ideal if you had documents that needed to be signed. You could also end up waiting a long time for a document during busy hours.

Enter email. While it wasn’t as refined, email only relied on an internet connection (talking of unreliable tech in the 90s). It was more convenient for sending and receiving documents as technology progressed.

With the introduction of file hosting services like Google Drive, it became more straightforward for people to send documents over the internet.

While the fax machine was helpful in its time (and still might be for some today), the ease and convenience email offers has to make it a winner.

Winner: 20s

Worth mentioning: The Millenium Bug

What was that all about? The confused comments of everyone as we passed out of the 90s and into a new decade.

The Y2K problem was a proposed computer error that would wreak havoc on every industry, from banking to air travel, as developers worried whether programs could distinguish the new year’s dates.

There was widespread worry, and the damage was expected to be anywhere between $400 million to $600 billion.

The New Year came, and nothing happened – at least not to the predicted extent. However, this was primarily due to the anticipation of companies and the upgrading of systems. I wonder if we’d have trusted technology so much if the Millenium Bug happened?

Early decade crises

Firstly, you can’t win a crisis, so there’s no winner or loser here. But we think it’s important to recognise the struggles of each time.

As a society, there will always be events that affect us all, affecting our general lives and our working lives.

The crisis of the late 10s and early 20s is apparent, the global pandemic. Millions were made redundant or were furloughed, and work changed as we’d never seen it change before.

And now businesses are planning for the future, new industries and ideas will emerge, and the feeling of positivity around work is starting to return.

While the 90s is considered a free-spirited, happy time, it wasn’t always that way. Much like the 20s, the decade didn’t get off to a great start.

The British economy went into recession in the third quarter of 1990 and didn’t recover until April 1993, when the UK government declared the country was out of recession.

However, there was a strong Labour movement at the time, and in 1994 the term ‘New Labour’ started to appear, and in 1996 Labour was re-elected.

Much like the mid-90s, there’s a feeling that things will get better, which can only mean good things for our working lives.

Announcing the winner…. The 20s! 4-2.

Agree with our choices? Or have we missed something? Leave us a comment!

About Investors in People

Investors in People have been working with a huge range of big and small organisations from Public Sectors, SMEs, Charities, PLCs and anything in between for over 30 years. We have accredited more than 50,000 organisations and our  accreditation is recognised in 66 countries around the world, making it the global benchmark when it comes to people management. So we know we speak your language and can offer the specific kind of support and guidance your organisation needs.

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14th Nov 2023 | Old Billingsgate, London



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