Select Page

Harrowing Photos of the Post-Industrial World of the 1970s and 80s

post industrial britain

The first hint I had about the growing post-industrial wastelands of my youth came from music. The first was in 1984 with My Hometown from Springsteen’s Born in the USA album. The second was from Life In A Northern Town by Dream Academy.

Springsteen’s narrative about a rug mill that closed in Freehold Borough, New Jersey, was more direct. It included references to racial tension, job loss and a growing hopelessness about the state of manufacturing in America. Life In A Northern Town was more subtle. The stench of rotting city dreams did not hang like a pea soup fog, but instead, wafted gently through the rafters of 1985.

Post-Industrial Wastelands

Most people believed Life In A Northern Town was about the post-apocalyptic wastelands of the post-industrial world. Two videos were made for the song and the second one featured two plant closures in Pennsylvania, LTV Steel and Duquesne Light. Later, fans learned that the song was actually a tribute to the English songwriter Nick Drake who committed suicide in 1974. Drake’s music inspired such acts as R.E.M., Norah Jones and Coldplay, just to name a few.

You don’t have to dig very deep into Drake’s life to understand that the tribute song is about Drake’s “Northern Sky” and “northern line” — lyrics in two of his songs that pay homage to his state of being — a disenchanted songwriter burdened by a modern life that had eroded people and values, and now itself was eroding away.

That modern life was post-industrial Britain and it is what formed the backdrop for the dreams that eluded Drake throughout his life.

During the 1970s and 80s, photographer Chris Killip captured the country’s difficult transition to the post-industrial era in a series of haunting black and white pictures. They’ve been called “harrowing” and “defining pieces of modern journalism.” In 1988, they were published in a book called In Flagrante, and now, after nearly 20 years have been reissued in a new, large format edition. The publisher is Steidl. The children in these photos are Generation X Brits plagued by economic downturn. Kids who came of age in the 1980s and bore witness to the developed world’s shift to a knowledge-based economy.




When I consider the rolling brown outs and open-air drug markets of major American cities — the bus systems that have shut down, the fire departments that have been eliminated, the 600,000 deteriorating bridges, the 400,000 registered sex offenders, the asphalt streets that have been replaced with gravel — because it’s cheaper — I see that our country has gone in reverse. And, I can’t believe politicians are saying that the current generation of young people are going to have it worse than their parents. So many people said this so long ago and they said it about Generation X — when we were young and listening to Life In A Northern Town. 

I guess nobody believed it back in 1988 — the first time college men with Bachelor’s degrees couldn’t find jobs. Sadly, it would take two more generations before reality sunk in and by then, a shocking number of white, middle-aged men — Gen Xers — had already died in post-industrial America.


Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

Thank you for subscribing. Posts are delivered ONCE A WEEK on Sundays at 6 p.m. You can unsubscribe anytime with one click. Also, we will not share your email address with anyone.

Pin It on Pinterest