The 1980s

Page 1 – Introduction

Detail from USS Texas protest march
Detail from USS Texas protest march

It is easy to look back at the 1980s with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment. Big hair and big fashion (crimes) in a range of electric neon colours evoke a decade in which more very definitely meant more. It was the age of the ‘Yuppie’. But it was also a decade of profound political and social change. It was the decade when the ‘baby boomers’ took over from the generation which had fought in the Second World War.

The bitterly opposed 1981 Springbok tour shook the country to its core. The violence on our streets was reminiscent of scenes from overseas that we usually watched on our TV screens. The bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by the French secret service in Auckland in 1985 was another reminder that New Zealand was not immune to the problems of the rest of the world. 

The David Lange-led Labour government that took power following the 1984 snap election radically transformed the country’s economic landscape. Equally radical new directions in foreign and social policy upended the old certainties of post-war New Zealand. The interventionist policies of Robert Muldoon were replaced by ‘Rogernomics’, a commitment to a free-market economy. Our relationship with the United States was harmed when we went nuclear free in 1987, but most New Zealanders accepted this as a ‘price worth paying’.

Rogernomics hurt many, but others benefited from the deregulation of the economy, especially those who invested in the stock market. In 1987 we published our first ever ‘Rich List’. Labour’s re-election that year was a provisional endorsement of Rogernomics. But cracks that could not be papered over were appearing. The stock-market crash of October 1987 sent shock waves through the economy. Divisions within the government over the nature and pace of reform eventually led to Lange’s resignation in 1989. A little over a year later Labour lost office as it had won it, in a landslide. It left a very different New Zealand in its wake.

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'The 1980s', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 12-Apr-2023