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There is an old Jaffa saying, General Hammond: 'They do not build them as they once did.'
—Teal'c, Stargate SG-1
Most cultures have this feeling- particularly among the elderly. If anything, Americans tend to reject it more than most cultures.
Often older things are over-engineered, which causes them to last longer and endure hard usage. A business that has been producing an item for awhile starts to find ways to either reduce cost, or improve some other important attribute (such as reducing weight), often at the cost of reducing durability. This applies to everything from microwaves to things as mundane as shoes. (Shoes made with older technology cost more, but they also tend to last longer).
Cars are another example. Older cars were made under the theory that, in a crash, the car should show as little damage as possible, and hence were made of thick steel; the body panels were often not load-bearing and could be easily removed. Newer cars (i.e. engineered in the last 30 years) are designed to simply fall apart in a crash, keeping the occupants safe by allowing the car's frame to absorb the energy involved in a crash by crumpling and going to pieces instead of transmitting the energy to the occupants. Of course, this does destroy the car. There are also maintenance issues. It used to be the "tree-shade mechanic" could fix an engine with basic tools, but newer cars require complicated and expensive tools. On the other hand, these efficiencies and cost reductions have allowed more people to afford a car; the U.S. population increased by 55% from 1960 to 2000, but the number of licensed drivers more than doubled over the same period.
This also highlights the selective enforcement of this and other Nostalgia Filter-related tropes. Though there are far more cars on the road, and far more miles driven, fatalities have remained level (fatalities-per-mile in the U.S. have decreased by 75% over the last 50 years). This is ignored, while the more easily-damaged vehicle is seen as evidence that They Don't Make Them Like They Used To.
Houses are another good example. Sometimes after a major disaster- like a hurricane- all the houses built before a certain date will have survived with minor damage, while newer houses are destroyed. This shows something of a selection bias; the less durable houses of that era are already gone, leaving only the most durable to face the hurricane. Due to the evolution of building codes, sometimes the newest houses also survive. In flooding situations, barring really record-breaking floods a rather similar selection process will take place, though in this case it's more a case of where the houses are built; the locations least at risk from flooding will be built upon first, with development spreading into more vulnerable areas as the town grows.
Another housing example is the old breezeway. Older houses were built with a breezeway to take advantage of prevailing winds to cool the house in the summer. Newer houses just have air conditioning and no such breezeway. Guess which is cooler if the power goes out in the summer?
For large structures like bridges, this is caused by a combination of factors. Good engineers realized their knowledge of materials and engineering techniques was incomplete, and tended to make things much stronger than calculations called for (the Brooklyn Bridge is over-engineered by almost an order of magnitude). At the same time, less well-designed structures have collapsed or been replaced.
They Don't Make Them Like They Used To is a form of nostalgia, that prefers the simpler, and more durable aspects of older designs over the more complex and fragile newer designs. The simple fact is that cheaply made items fall apart before they get old.
- On Rocky and Bullwinkle's "Fractured Fairy Tales" the Prince attempts to enter the castle of Sleeping Beauty, breaking his sword on the overgrowth surrounding it and lamenting "They don't make them like they used to." After easily getting through with the help of a lawn-mowner, he adds triumphantly, "They make these like they used to."
- Interestingly used in the current home console generation. They actually don't make PS3s like they used to - the older models with the Emotion Engine reverse-compatability went out of production in favor of newer and cheaper models, in order for Sony to close the price-gap with Microsoft. Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 reverses this - due to a number of very loud issues with the early batches of X360's, Microsoft has been forced to shape up and improve the quality, making the newest versions much less likely to burn out than the old ones.
- This particular brand of nostalgia is mostly subverted in regards to computers, since the first ones were things that could take up entire rooms, had a fraction of the memory current computers have, and were extremely slow.
- Notwithstanding the above, there is definite affection for keyboards of yore.
- Stephen Colbert, as usual, has a different take on it.
Stephen: They make 'em like that any more, Jon - they just do.
- Ford's Panther Platform (Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, Town Car) is a major beneficiary of this sort of thinking. The basic design dates back to 1979, and the perimeter-frame, RWD V8 design wasn't much beyond the state of the art of the 1950s. They are, indeed, extremely durable cars, but also handle poorly and are rather cramped for something the size of a limo. Interestingly, the similarly-antiquated GM competitor, the Chevrolet Caprice, was discontinued in 1996 but is widely considered by police and taxi drivers to be the superior car. Indeed, they don't make them like they used to.
- Watchmen features Nite Owl I a.k.a. Hollis Mason, who has a great love of old, petrol-powered cars (with the advent of Dr. Manhattan, new models become powered by lithium batteries). The sign for his repair shop even features the line: "Obsolete Models a Specialty." Appropriate for the residence of a retired masked hero.
- In Seth's It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken our main character has this feeling about old buildings, museum exhibits, and well...ok, everything.
- In the episode "Be A Clown" of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman escapes from the Joker's complicated deathtrap, prompting this comment from the Joker: "They don't make straitjackets like they used to. I should know!"
- Expressed in a fairly verbose fashion in the Assessors' report into the sinking of MV Derbyshire "The use of direct methods of design, utilising in particular finite element analysis, is radically reducing the redundancies which naturally occurred in the prescriptive methods of the past"
- Played with in Soul Music, when the protagonists visit a mysterious antique shop.
Proprietor: They don't build them like that any more.
- Implied in Back to The Future II when Marty suggests landing on Biff's car to cripple it.
Doc Brown: Marty, he's in a '46 Ford, we're in a DeLorean. He'd rip through us like we were tinfoil.
They don't make 'em like this anymore. Sturdy, heavy, dull.
- Also played with in Ghostbusters when Peter and Ray are discussing the unusual architecture of Dana's building:
Peter: So what? I guess they just don't make them like they used to.
- In The Simpsons episode "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy", Abe complains that toys in the store are junk and were built to last when he was young. He starts breaking some toys until security guards grab him.
- This pretty well sums up the Imperium's entire philosophy regarding technology in Warhammer 40000. They know that a radical new invention could have been inspired by a Chaos God, and tech based on it could carry some of the extremely unpleasant taint.