The Not-So-Good Old Days

June 16, 2013

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http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/opinion/sunday/coontz-the-not-so-good-old-days.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

By Stephanie Koontz

My column last month about the dangers of nostalgia inspired many readers to write to me about their family memories of the 1950s and ’60s. Some shared poignant stories about the discrimination they encountered as blacks, women, gay men or lesbians. Others described how much easier it was for their working-class fathers to support a family back then.

Manufacturing workers have reason to regret the passing of an era. Between 1945 and 1978, their real earnings almost doubled — rising by 95 percent — but then, over the next 34 years, they actually fell by 2.3 percent. Supporters of women’s reproductive rights might feel nostalgic for an era when three former presidents, the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Democrats Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, were happy to serve as honorary co-chairmen of a Planned Parenthood fund-raising committee.

But you can’t just stroll through the past, picking the things you like and skipping the ones you don’t, as if historical eras were menus, and you could pick one from column A and one from column B. They are, rather, interconnected social, economic and political systems. Whether someone would really want to return to a particular time depends on socioeconomic class, age, sex, race and health.

In 1950, a young man, with or without a high school degree, would have found it much easier than it is today to get and keep a job in the auto industry. And in that year, according to Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa, the average autoworker could meet monthly mortgage payments on a median-priced home with just 13.4 percent of his take-home pay. Today a similar mortgage would claim more than twice that share of his monthly earnings.

Other members of the autoworker’s family, however, might be less inclined to trade the present for the past. His retired parents would certainly have had less economic security back then. Throughout much of the 1960s, more than a quarter of men and women age 65 and older lived below the poverty level, compared to less than 10 percent in 2010.

In most states, his wife could not have taken out a loan or a credit card in her own name. If she wanted a job, she had to turn to the “Help Wanted — Female” section of the classifieds, where she might learn, as one 1963 ad in this newspaper put it, that “you must be really beautiful” to be hired. In 42 states, a homemaker had no legal claim on the earnings of her husband. And nowhere did a wife have legal recourse against marital rape.

A couple with a disabled child would surely not want to return to an era when such kids were regularly warehoused in institutions, where they might be sterilized or lobotomized. Not long ago I drove past one such former hospital in Winfield, Kan., the long-closed Asylum for Idiotic and Imbecile Youth.

Nor would most black workers want to revert to a time when, on average, they earned 40 percent less than their white counterparts, while restrictive racial covenants largely prevented them from buying into the suburban neighborhoods being built for white working-class families.

Today, new problems have emerged in the process of resolving old ones, but the solution is not to go back to the past. Some people may long for an era when divorce was still hard to come by. The spread of no-fault divorce has reduced the bargaining power of whichever spouse is more interested in continuing the relationship. And the breakup of such marriages has caused pain for many families.

Yet, according to the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, whenever a state adopted a no-fault divorce law, the annual rate of female suicide there dropped by 8 to 16 percent, and the incidence of domestic violence declined by roughly 30 percent.

It would certainly help if we could reverse the deterioration of real wages and job security that so many Americans have endured in recent decades. But even if we succeeded, we will have to accept that family life will never again be as stable, universal or uniform as it was when few women could support themselves, when couples who divorced or lived together outside of marriage faced widespread discrimination, when gay men and lesbians were often pressured into sham marriages and when victims of domestic violence or child abuse had few avenues to escape from their tormentors.

The growing diversity of family life comes with new possibilities as well as new challenges. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, more than 80 percent of Americans believe that their current family is as close as the one in which they grew up, or closer. Finding ways to improve the lives of the remaining 20 percent seems more realistic than trying to restore an imaginary golden age.

Stephanie Coontz, a guest columnist, teaches at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

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