It common to hear that the 1960s marked a shift in American and global culture and social life. Yet, the more I learn about the 1950s, it seems like this is the decade that was really unusual.
I was thinking about this again recently while reading Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History. Coontz describes how Victorian views of marriage started unraveling at the turn of the 20th century and changes accelerated in the 1920s. Women were more free to work, be aggressors in seeking out intimate relationships, and conservatives worried that divorce rates and levels of premarital sex were rising. But after World War II, traditionalism made a comeback: millions of women who had worked in jobs that helped the war effort returned home as housewives, the country had an unprecedented baby boom, and many Americans sought out single-family homes in the suburbs in order to fully realize their familial potential. This bubble burst in the 1960s but this highlights the short course of the 1950s world; Coontz suggests this idyllic world lasted for only about 15 years.
Of course, there were a host of other factors that made the 1950s unique in the United States. The US was the only major country that hadn’t been ravaged by war. America became a military, economic, and cultural powerhouse as other countries struggled to rebuild. There was enough prosperity across the board to help keep some of the very real inequalities (particularly in terms of race) off the radar screen for many Americans. There was a clear enemy, Communism, and no controversial wars to get bogged down in. America moved to becoming a suburban nation as many become occupied with buying and maintaining single-family homes and stocking them with new appliances. There was a real mass media (just check out the TV ratings and shares for that decade) and an uptick in church attendance.
This is still a relevant issue today. After the Republican National Convention last week, President Obama suggested the Republicans want to go back to the 1950s. If the 1950s were indeed a very unique period that would be difficult to replicate and we know the decade did indeed have real issues, then this may indeed be a problem in 2012 when the world looks very different. Perhaps we could even argue that Republicans want a world that carries on the 1950s and Democrats would prefer one that carries on the legacy of the 1960s.