I began cruising in the 80's and, yes, things were very different. I don't think they were, necessarill better, or worse, just different.
The ships were small and carried under 1,000 passengers. At the end of a seven day cruise you would recognize most of your fellow-passengers by sight and many by name. Waiters had less people to serve and the service was a little better. However, many lines still offer excellent dining room service, if not as good as the 80's.
The crew, especially the Cruise Director's staff, was able to get more intimate with the passengers.
There was no TV (no satellites), no Times Fax, no Internet Cafe, and you could only telephone the States one hour a day, usually from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm from the radio room. You really could get away from it all.
Most of the ships were converted 2 or 3 class ocean liners and navigating them could be a nightmare. To get from one place on the ship to another you might have to walk up 1-2 flights of stairs, across a deck adn down another 1-2 flights of stairs.
Because the ships were small, the main showrooms were built on one deck, one level, and sightlines were poor. Additionally, the ship size didn't allow the number of different entertainment they do now.
The most important factor is that the cruise lines have really kept costs down. A 7-day cruise today still costs approximately the same, or just slightly more, than the cruises of the 80's and 90's. The lines have a lot more going for "on-board" revenue, but the fares have remained stable and most of the onboard revenue-producing is strictly optional. Photo, bar and shore excursion prices have skyrocketed!
I loved the "old style cruising" and love today's. I wish some of the 'old' ships were still around and you could choose what kind you wanted. In fact, every now and then I take the Regal Empress' (formerly the Olympi and Caribe I) 2-night to Nassau, just for old-time sake.
As far as people's expectations, now, first time many cruisers rely strictly on the brochures, which are, admittedly, misleading. However, those that use the internet to do research, and come to Boards like this, should know what to generally expect.
That being said, even veteran cruisers can be "surprised." Things can vary from ship-to-ship, cruise line to cruise line and even trip-to-trip on the same ship.
My philosophy, after more than 60 cruises, is that if you don't expect anything you won't be disappointed