Younger people today know how to do amazing things. They ride hoverboards and electric scooters. Use 3-D printers and smartphones like pros. Attend classes and make friends online. Create podcasts, YouTube channels, TikTok videos and more.
But there are plenty of activities that this generation of digital natives will never experience.
I’ve co-written two books about the lost toys, tastes and trends of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s — “Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?” and “The Totally Sweet ‘90s.” But these days, I’ve been thinking not about objects but about the old-school activities that are fading away, as surely as a Smurfs beach towel left out in the sun.
Some of them were fun pastimes we intentionally sought out; others were just rote procedures we went through because that was what you did.
I’m a bit sad that my daughter will never know the fun of making a Christmas list from a department-store catalog. But I haven’t called a phone number to get the time and temperature in decades, and I don’t miss that one bit. We can’t keep everything from our past, or there’ll be no room for anything new.
Here’s a look at lost activities — things older generations once participated in regularly, but that their kids and grandkids may never even do once. (Note that I’m a 1970s-1980s kid so my memories skew heavily towards those avocado-appliance and neon-colored decades.) See which ones you remember — and which ones sound like science fiction to your family’s youngest members.
1. Digging a prize out of a cereal box
How many parents were cajoled to buy a certain sugary cereal brand by kids who just wanted the plastic toy promised on the box? They were cheap and easily broken or lost, and when there were different colors or characters, you never landed the one you wanted most. These breakfast treasure hunts are mostly gone, and they’re missed.
2. Making a mix tape
Kids once spent hours recording just the right songs on a mix tape (or later, mix CD), putting together the perfect playlist for a best buddy or new crush. Today’s youths can hand-pick a song playlist on streaming music services like Spotify, but they don’t get to dress it up with ballpoint pen doodles and stickers.
3. Consulting a print encyclopedia
World Book, Encyclopedia Britannica, Funk & Wagnalls — if you didn’t have an encyclopedia set in your home, you surely used one at your local or school library. While they were out of date before their ink ever dried, there was something fun about flipping through a volume and learning more than you’d ever want to know about baseball or birds or Baltimore. My family’s set came out in 1963, and in its pages, John F. Kennedy was eternally president.
4. Wandering through Blockbuster
It wasn’t always Blockbuster — I mostly went to a local indie video store that also offered tanning, back when that was all the rage. But strolling through a video store’s crowded aisles, arguing with friends about whether to choose the newest blockbuster or rewatch an old favorite — ah, it was a tantalizing bit of option paralysis. Flipping through Netflix’s latest offerings with your remote just isn’t the same.
5. Tuning in to MTV for a new hot video
Entertainment can be called up at our leisure these days, especially since the coronavirus pandemic started sending more new movies to our TVs rather than to theatrical release. But in the 1980s, MTV was king, and when that network announced it was premiering a new video by one of the hottest singers, you bet we loyal subjects marked our calendars and watched. It wasn’t always a “Thriller,” but sometimes it was worth it.
6. Planning a trip on a paper map
Unlike Google and Apple Maps, a paper map can’t give you the latest traffic report. But those of us who grew up with paper maps know how special they were. You can stretch out an entire state map and plot your route easily, spotting big cities and tourist locations that might be worth visiting. Still, you’ll never have to awkwardly try to re-fold an online map and end up angrily crumpling it up and shoving it in the glove box.
7. Making a Christmas list from a print catalog
I’ll always think fondly of grabbing a fat J.C. Penney or Montgomery Ward catalog and using a big marker to circle the Barbies, Breyer horses or board games that I longed to see under the Christmas tree. Catalogs have mostly died out with department stores, and clicking on items for an Amazon wish list just isn’t the same.
8. Writing paper letters to a pen pal
My pen pal came from the Trixie Belden Fan Club when I was 13, and we still exchange Christmas cards. Her handwriting was bubbly and beautiful, and her life in public school in Boston seemed a different world from my Minnesota Catholic-school childhood. Today, people form all kinds of friendships online with people they’ll never see, but there was an innocence to our sticker-covered, scented-stationery letters sent through the actual mail decades before we called it “snail mail.”
9. Looking up programs in the TV Guide
Between network TV, premium cable and streaming services, it’s no exaggeration to say today’s kids may have access to hundreds of channels. We had five in my house when I was growing up, and TV Guide was our weekly treasure map to when the good stuff was on. It also warned us about when there was nothing on but golf and “Bowling for Dollars,” and we finally had to get off our duffs and go outside again.
10. Using Sun In spray to lighten your hair
Some of us should never have been granted unfettered access to Sun In, a chemical spray that promised to lighten your hair and bring out your natural highlights. The models on the box were gorgeous, but most of us regular users ended up looking like Greg Brady in the “Brady Bunch” episode where Bobby’s hair tonic turns his brother’s hair a carroty orange. If you’ve ever used it, you can still smell it in your dreams.
11. Recording a TV show with a cassette recorder
No, not a videocassette recorder. Before the VCR became available, we kids who owned a regular ol’ cassette recorder would hold it up to the television and record the audio track of “The Carol Burnett Show,” or “In Search of…” or whatever our current TV obsession was. Back then, it was the only way to get a chance to at least hear a show again before it inevitably came around in reruns. If your little brother started blabbing over the actors while you were recording, too bad, such was life in media’s Dark Ages.
12. Memorizing song lyrics from liner notes
Lucky music-lovers of the 2020s have the lyrics to every single song ever written at their fingertips (although often those lyrics are wrong, thanks to clueless uploaders). But back in the day, we eagerly unfolded the cards that lined our cassette tape cases and scrambled to find out just what the mumbly lead singer was saying. Some vinyl albums and CDs came with lyrics on liner notes, too, but some came with nothing but moody band photos, so we had to just keep guessing. Revved up like a deuce? Are you sure, Manfred Mann?