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When I Was Young in the 1950s and Early 60s… August 16, 2010

When I was young in the 1950s and early 60s it was just assumed that ‘progress’ was leading us toward a life of more and more leisure and that work was going to get easier and easier.  Actually, it didn’t quite happen that way.  As technology made work easier, more and more work became things that women were capable of doing.  There were plenty of “women’s jobs” then, contrary to what young people today may think.  In particular, nurse, telephone operator, secretary, file clerk, lower level office worker, were all thought of as women’s jobs.  The difference is that the price of housing was such at that time that more women could take off of work during their childbearing years than at any other time in history.  [In America, it was also the time that the age of marriage was earlier than ever before or since.  A theme in 50s teenage music is “We’re in young love, but our parents won’t let us marry”!  I suppose some of them resorted to pregnancy to force their parents’ hand; a shotgun wedding in reverse!]

Well, when more and more jobs were of the kind that women would enjoy doing (as opposed to Rosie the Riveter of World War II, who was glad to stop riveting and get back into the kitchen), first of all, after 1970, two income couples began to outbid one income couples for a finite supply of land and housing.  Second, since women could fulfill high level roles at work, the idea that men and women were absolutely interchangeable began to be applied to other areas.  The most radical example of this is same-sex marriage — the idea that a man is as good as a woman as a marriage partner for a man, and vice versa.  It is less certain to me that working women drove down wages overall.  Warren and Tyagi in their book The Two Income Trap made fairly clear that the reasons wives and mothers ‘had’ to work had mostly to do with costs of health care, tuition, and housing (in the case of public schools, ‘tuition’ is folded into housing costs).  Some would include taxes, because of bracket creep.  I have a hunch that men’s wage rates pretty much kept up with the cost of consumer goods and the sorts of things that one buys at malls or big boxes until 2007; it was in regard to the devil’s square of housing, tuition, health care, and bracket creep that they lost ground.

Another factor was the rest of the world.  India and China compete with us and underbid us in a way they never did before.  Once again, cheaper consumer products partly make up for this [but health care, tuition, and housing are not sold at Walmart] and to get them in Bangalore, you have to go live in Bangalore.  And technology also helped a lot of people live longer.  All advanced societies, not just the US, are worrying about whether they can afford to support retired people for such a long period, and may end up raising the retirement age for the able bodied.

No, this is not what we, in 1960, were expecting 2010 to look like.  Communication is even better than we expected — the Internet and all — but where are the personal jetpacks and rocketships? Transport has improved a lot less.  And we make work for each other by making requests of each other, so we are working harder than ever.  The new Sabbath, as I pointed out in a previous post is a period of ignoring your cell phone and your e-mail. Shabbat Shalom!

Reference: “Calling Time on Progress” at The Economist

One Comments
Stormy 08/18/2010

Interesting. My financial life certainly changed when I got married. It was a struggle until then (although I was content). My wife has always worked for others so it was never of question of whether she would manage the household and I would bring home the bacon. The idea that more household income led to higher housing cost sounds plausible. The Nelsons and the Cleavers became the Huxtables, Clintons, Obamas and Doles.

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