Memories of a Not-So Golden Age

Ever since the economic downturn that followed the popping of the housing bubble in 2007, I have seen many people who are nostalgic for the economic boom of the 1990’s, and to a lesser extent 60’s and 50’s. Nowadays those decade were the “Golden Age” when the entire nation as a whole was becoming more prosperous, and there appeared to be no limits to what technology could achieve. However, after the most severe economic crisis since the 30’s it seemed like our economy stopped working. I have experienced this for myself since I have struggled with getting a proper job these past few years. But did the economy of the 90’s, 60’s and 50’s actually made life much better?

At a very naive level, of course. The 50’s and 60’s saw an economy that was growing, with relatively low unemployment and relatively high wages. This was less true of the 80’s and 90’s, but at least with the continuing growth in the stock market people had hope that their savings will continue to grow.

But this incredible economic growth caused all kinds of social problems. One major problem was overwork. During the 90’s I remember hearing a commercial (I think it was a public service announcement) which included a description of a man who worked 3 jobs to support his family. Nowadays when I remember that commercial I simply marvel at the fact that it was possible for a man to find 3 jobs, but back then I felt pity that the man had to work so hard. People back then were well-paid, but were also stressed from the pressures of having to work long hours. In extreme cases this lead to psychological problems, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

The overwhelming incentive to choose work over family and friends caused all sorts of strains in personal relationships. (This is true even now, but since the economy is not as good fewer people have careers so this is less of a problem.) From personal experience, I didn’t get to know my father very well because he worked so much overtime at his job. This was fairly typical for someone who worked in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. He was lucky in that his marriage didn’t fall apart, but only because my mom tolerated his dedicated to his career. (I bring this up because I saw a television documentary which explained that the founders of Silicon Valley had a high divorce rate.)

The consumerist culture of that time was also a problem. In order to have a strong economy you need a strong consumerist class to demand the goods you are making. However, consumerism also encourages a materialist culture that values commodities over human relationships. Children and teenagers today were (are still are) given a lot of money by parents who didn’t have a lot of time to spend with them. Many people were concerned that from an early age children are taught to value money over relationships.

As people get wealthier, they need to rely less on each other. In some instances this may be good, but it also erodes community spirit and encourage selfishness. An example of this comes from writer Douglas Rushkoff. He grew up in a neighborhood that was relatively poor. But even in their poverty, his neighbors often had barbecues where everyone contributed a little bit of food. Everybody ensured that everyone else was fed, and this created a sense of communal solidarity. As his family got richer they moved to a richer neighborhood, and this spirit of helping out your neighbor disappeared. Instead of cooperation there was competition, over who can afford the largest barbecue grill and the finest steaks.

I am not advocating that everybody should be in poverty, having been poor I know that it is a very unpleasant experience. What I am saying is that the nostalgia for a better times has lead us to ignore the problems inherent to our economic system for creating prosperity. Just fixing the economy so that everybody can have a well-paying job is a very flawed solution to our problems. Otherwise we would find ourselves living very stressful and lonely lives.

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