Back when fifty years was a long time ago

January 1, 2013

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

New Year’s Day is an excellent time to look back at changes, not just in the past year, but in the past half-century.

Mark Palko has an interesting post on the pace of changes in everyday life. We’ve been hearing a lot in the past few decades about how things are changing faster and faster. But, as Palko points out, the difference between life in 1962 and life today does not seem so different, at least for many people in the United States. Sure, there are some big changes: nonwhites get more respect, people mostly live longer, many cancers can be cured, fewer people are really really poor but it’s harder to hold down a job, cars are more reliable, you can get fresh fish in the suburbs, containers are lighter and stronger, vacations in the Caribbean instead of the Catskills, people have a lot more stuff and a lot more place to put it, etc etc etc. But life in the 1950s or 1960s just doesn’t seem so different from how we live today.

In contrast, Palko writes, “You can also get some interesting insights looking at the way pop culture portrayed these changes”:

In the middle of the century, particularly in the Forties, there was a great fascination with the Gay Nineties. It was a period in living memory and yet in many ways it seemed incredibly distant, socially, politically, economically, artistically and most of all, technologically. In 1945, much, if not most day-to-day life depended on devices and media that were either relatively new in 1890 or were yet to be invented. Even relatively old tech like newspapers were radically different, employing advances in printing and photography and filled with Twentieth Century innovations like comic strips.

The Nineties genre was built around the audiences’ self-awareness of how rapidly their world had changed and was changing. The world of these films was pleasantly alien, separated from the viewers by cataclysmic changes.

Palko continues:

The comparison to Mad Men is useful. We have seen an uptick in interest in the world of fifty years ago but it’s much smaller than the mid-Twentieth Century fascination with the Nineties and, more importantly, shows like Mad Men, Pan Am and the Playboy Club focused almost entirely on social mores. None of them had the sense of travelling to an alien place that you often get from Gay Nineties stories.

Indeed, when I’ve watched Mad Men, one thing that’s struck me is that I can see where so much of our increased wealth in the past 50 years has gone: we have faster cars and more planes, we travel farther, we have lots more furniture and appliances and bigger houses and bigger apartments. Also fun things like computers that allow even amateurs like myself to write millions of words in our spare time. But, as Palko says, life as of 1965 was not so different from now. The changes from 1900 to 1950 do seem to be bigger.

Palko cites Paul Krugman who writes about the unpredictability of economic progress, but I wonder if that all misses the point, a bit. For white middle-class Americans, material life was already OK in 1965. Sure, improvement is fine—I certainly won’t complain about the expensive medical technology that fixed my broken wrist and cleared up my heartbeat, nor will I complain about all the advances that have led to Stan. (And, yes, improvements for ethnic minorities are important, but of course most of the economic growth went to whites.) Overall, there has a limit on what economic progress can do to change our lives. In short, the difference between the Late Late Late Show and Netflix is just inherently not that big.

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