30 Years of Tragedies and Triumphs

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, center, is greeted by supporters after arriving at the airport in Tehran Iran in this Feb. 1, 1979 photo
The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, center, is greeted by supporters after arriving at the airport in Tehran Iran in this Feb. 1, 1979 photo. Monday Feb. 1, 1999 is the 20th anniversary of Khomeini's return from exile to lead the Islamic revolution in his country. ( AP Photo )
AP Photo

It has been 30 years of transformation, of good times and troubled times. From the movie magic of "E.T." dazzling audiences worldwide to Three Mile Island, to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Three decades of change in our culture, our communications and our politics, from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.

Our enemies have changed too. In 1979, the Cold War was still in full spate, and yet, ten years later, the Soviet empire began to fall a part, beginning with the collapse of the Berlin Wall; just two years after that, the Soviet Union didn't exist.

Correspondent Rita Braver spoke with Niall Ferguson, a Scotsman by birth who teaches history and economics at Harvard University.

"Now I think for most Americans, the great threat is Islamic terrorism," Braver remarked.

"And it's worth remembering the extent to which 1979 was the year that that properly began to be a threat to the United States, with the Iranian revolution," Ferguson pointed out.

It was a time when the whole world seemed to be shifting. China became an economic power, while South Africa ended apartheid.

And the social order changed in this country, too. For example, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman ever to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It does seem that over the last 30 years we've gotten to a period where white men are no longer calling all the shots," Braver remarked.

"If there's one thing that has changed since 1979, is that women have significantly increased their influence in almost all walks of society, and the status of African-Americans and other racial ethnic minorities has greatly improved," Ferguson said. "I think most people in 1979, if you'd polled them, 'Will there ever be an African-American president,' would have said 'inconceivable.'"

"Is this a 30-year period in which there have been more changes than in other 30-year periods, or is it about the same?" Braver asked.

"I don't think so," Ferguson replied. "But there's been much more rapid adoption of change. I mean, what's interesting is the speed with which a new technology gets adopted now."

"Thirty years ago I was probably sitting in a dorm room, trying to figure out how to make my IBM Selectric correct the paper I was typing," said Marian Salzman, the chief trendspotter for the Porter Novelli Public Relations Agency. "And today, I'm figuring out how to Twitter off my BlackBerry while I'm using my second BlackBerry to place a conference call."

Salzman says the past 30 years have not only brought us advances in phones, computers and other technology, but also in science: the Hubble space telescope, awareness of global warming, cloning (remember Dolly the sheep?), decoding of the human genome, and many medical breakthroughs.

Talking about Viagra, Salzman says it was the "great liberator."

"This blue pill came along and suddenly men could be boys or they could be studs. Or they could be whatever they wanted to be right up until their cardiologist told them absolutely not," she said.

Like any era, this one had its crazes, like parents fighting over Cabbage Patch Kids in toy stores. It was the dawn of reality TV, of 24-hour cable news, of celebrity culture.

We invented new words and phrases for things we started to be, have and do: multitasking, 24/7, googling, texting, ringtones, drama queens, metrosexuals, big box, bling. In fact, it's been an era of "ginormous" dreams.

"Marketers realized that the big profit was in constantly trading up," Salzman explained. "The first car you bought was about getting the next car. The first credit card you got was about trading up to the next level of credit card membership. The first house you bought was never gonna be the house you were gonna stay in."

We also super-sized our portions - and ourselves. In the late '70s, 15 percent of us were obese; now it's 35 percent. We grew taller, too - women now average 5'4", men 5'9.5".

Our families changed, too. We have children later and there are more single moms. Our lives our busier, but there seems to be kind of a trend that there's more communication, but it's less meaningful.

"We do have a lot more contacts today, a lot more people that we're loosely in communication with. I don't think the extended family has that same reach when you're connecting with someone via gmail as maybe they did when you were connected with them every Sunday at your grandmother's house over a big kettle of soup," Salzman said.

But before you get too nostalgic, remember this: When Sunday Morning went on the air in 1979, we were in the middle of an economic nightmare - inflation above ten percent, mortgage rates almost 12 percent, and lines at gas stations.

"You had not just recession, you had stagflation, double-digit inflation, high unemployment and there was a sense at the time of profound national malaise. That was the term Jimmy Carter used in the late 1970s which was in many ways, the worst decade of the American century," says Niall Ferguson.

We came out of it and into years of relative prosperity. But there's no doubt that in the last third of this 30-year period America has faced increasing challenges: the Sept 11th attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the collapse of the housing and financial markets, the big three automakers in crisis, and a jump in unemployment.

Marian Salzman says Americans of today will have to get used to a new way of living. "Some comforts, but they're not gonna be material comforts, they're going to be comforts of the soul. People looking to find satisfactions they can get from quality relationships and accomplishing things."

And Niall Ferguson reminds us that some important things have not changed: American optimism and creativity. "And my bet is that even in the midst of this financial crisis, Americans will invent extraordinary new companies with extraordinary new technologies that will transform the world over the next 30 years."

Tragedies and triumphs, behind us, and to come.