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Why We Should Stop Longing for the 1950s

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1. The 1950s are sui generis

We often view the thirty years after World War II as a golden age of capitalism in the United States and the western world. Employment was high, and wealth was shared more equitably than any other time in modern history.  Living standards rose immeasurably; these decades essentially hatched the American middle class.  A big part of the story was the high water mark of American unionization.

Yet it’s important to realize now anomalous these years were. Demographic and geopolitical forces conspired to create a strong labor market.  People had put off starting families in the Great Depression, and ultimately had fewer children than they would have liked. This created a relatively small cohort of young jobseekers in the 1950s.  Competition for workers led in turn to higher wages.  Meanwhile, the tremendous industrial buildup of World War II finally banished the Great Depression for good, and left the United States with the foremost industrial infrastructure in the world.  Together these developments ensured high-paid employment for more Americans than ever before.

The historical uniqueness of the 1950s should discourage anyone seeking an easy return to that decade’s social and economic conditions. There’s no way to induce a decade of depression followed by a cataclysmic world war.

It cannot be denied that capitalism and America both seemed to be on the right track during the 1950s. Unfortunately the broad gains in prosperity weren’t shared equally in the United States. Women faced profound barriers in the workplace and beyond.  Discrimination against racial minorities remained legal.  And the 1950s marked the zenith of repression against sexual minorities.

2. The 1960s ushered in painful but necessary changes

There is much I abhor about the 1960s. Nevertheless, they cemented the march toward equality for all Americans. From the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the recognition of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges two years ago, American society has progressively realized the Constitutional promise of equal protection before the law.

This has been a great moral victory, or indeed a series of moral victories.  America, sometimes agonizingly slowly, has done what’s right.  Less acknowledged are the economic benefits, particularly with respect to women in the workplace. A nation that restricts unlimited employment opportunities to half its citizens fails to draw upon the ingenuity and productivity of the other half.  How can such a nation compete in the global economy?  Indeed, the civil rights victories of the past 50 years have contributed to America’s wealth among nations.  Discrimination is simply bad economics.

Of course, there have been winners and losers. Progressives sometimes fail to acknowledge that the 60s offered mixed blessings. Perhaps the best example is the introduction of effective birth control. Pregnancy traditionally carried huge risks for women. In the first decades of the twentieth century nearly one out of 100 women died during childbirth. Although the mortality rate began plummeting soon after, the years of dangerous childbirth weighed on women’s minds for a while longer. And medical innovation couldn’t help with the other liabilities of motherhood: pregnancy, nursing, and de facto responsibility for a child. Motherhood obviously makes it difficult for a woman to support herself, especially in the days when it was assumed that every mother was married to a male breadwinner.

Modern birth control—the pill and the IUD—gave women reproductive freedom.  Sexual activity didn’t automatically confer the risks of motherhood.  This was an important milestone in women’s struggle for equality. Many of us would also agree that sexual freedom was in itself a worthwhile accomplishment. So too has been the declining stigma surrounding women’s sexuality—Hester Prynne levels of slut-shaming are a thing of the past.

Still, there’s an important downside: effective birth control invalidated the contract that bound sexually active men to their partners. Prior to 1970, couples had sex with the understanding that pregnancy would instantly trigger a marriage proposal (perhaps “encouraged” by a shotgun belonging to the would-be bride’s father). This male obligation obviated much of the risk of sex for women. Birth control changed everything. As renowned economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen have pointed out, the advent of modern birth control effectively ceded sexual responsibility to women. The result was an explosion of children born out of wedlock. I don’t have moral concerns, but do worry about the extraordinarily high poverty rate for these mothers.

Let me summarize: the 1960s were a bitter pill for America. Society changed in many vital ways, but some of these changes created new social problems that we’ve yet to solve.

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3 thoughts on “Why We Should Stop Longing for the 1950s

  1. Byron Burkhalter

    Nice essay Nick, I have been thinking about the economic anomalies of the 50s and the piece you site is very interesting. As always your writing is clear and compelling. I wonder about your last two points on the 50s and whether you see those points as intertwined. The first point is the “undeniability” that capitalism and America are on the right track. The second point notes the discrimination of women, racial and sexual minorities as a negative aspect of the 50s. I always assumed that the creation of the middle class and racial, sexual and gender discrimination were connected. While the depression and “world” wars significantly contribute to the shortage of workers, taking women, racial and sexual minorities out of the work force allows for the remaining workers to take advantage of a “shortage” created in part by discrimination, increasing the privileged worker’s wages and creating a middle class through that discrimination. Further with access to mortgages restricted from women and racial minorities, the ability to build a personal safety net was restricted to that same privileged group. The middle class achievement of capitalism and “America” used discrimination as a necessary, if not sufficient, condition. Discrimination may be bad economics, but its not bad for everyone. I suspect many of those asking to go back to the 50s are not interested in war or depression but in the discrimination that assured a certain cultural and economic status. As long as that discrimination is recoverable, they have hope. Do you see the achievement of the middle class and discrimination as intertwined?

  2. admin Post author

    Thanks for your response, Byron, and sorry for my delay in responding. It’s so rare that I get actual comments–usually it’s Russian spam-bots–that I don’t check enough.

    I think you’re asking a good question that’s tough to answer. I agree that pervasive discrimination of all kinds had its benefits for white men. The very specific example that came to mind came from Linda Greenhouse & Michael Graetz’s recent book about the Burger Court, in which they describe how welcoming African Americans into the trade unions dispossessed whites of their seniority–& turned many into Reagan Democrats. That’s the glass-half-empty response.

    But the optimist in me notes that the Great Prosperity of ~1945-1973 was enabled by structural conditions that should be broadly beneficial under any discrimination regime. These included a much more progressive tax code, widespread unionization, massive public investment in infrastructure and education, and consolidation and expansion of the welfare state. I should also note that these structural conditions ultimately facilitated the move towards greater equity across racial, ethnic, and gender lines.

    And the fatalist in me can’t think of a better way to proceed. It was for this reason that I was heartened by Chuck Schumer’s oped in today’s Times.

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