When people get nostalgic for the good old days, it’s always tempting to wonder if there’s a bit of historical cherry picking going on. Everyone picks the good things and conveniently ignores the things that weren’t so great.
One of those time periods that seems to inspire nostalgia in an older generation were the 1950s. It was a time of tremendous growth and optimism in the nation. Fresh off winning WWII, there wasn’t anything America could not accomplish. We taxed the rich at substantial rates and poured that money into first paying off war debts and then at building the infrastructure of a growing nation.
Funny how no one really pines for the old tax rates that helped make the 50s what they were. More often the nostalgia is directed at families where a single breadwinner could provide for the family and look forward to a 20 or 25 year career at the same company, capped off by a gold watch and followed by a pension. Social mobility, people moving from one place to another for jobs, was quite low. When people pine for the good old days, it often seems to be that cohesiveness that came from living in a community for a long time and expecting your kids to grow up and also stay in that same area.
That narrative, which today sounds hopelessly old fashioned, has really formed the basis of our entire world. Our transportation system, our housing choices, the design of cities and suburbs, are all rooted in the 1950s and built around the concept of jobs and careers that no longer exist. We have arrived at a time when our housing, transportation and even our model for personal relationships no longer fits the world as it exists today.
Today jobs with pensions have all but disappeared, replaced with what are called “convenience workers”. Employees are there at the convenience of the company and can be let go with little or no notice and for no reason. More and more jobs are temporary, many are part-time, few offer any substantive benefits. The new dynamic creates new types of stresses, what Allison Pugh, professor of Sociology at University of Virginia, calls a one-way honor system where workers are beholden to their corporate employers but the companies owe their workers nothing in return.
The new working reality has given rise to the insecurity culture, where at least one partner in a relationship is insecure about his or her job. Today relocation in pursuit of a job is common as the unemployed will frequently have to change states to find a new job. Yet the cost of mobility is high as houses are difficult to sell and the transaction costs are steep. States are similarly ill equipped to deal with the new mobile reality as moving to a new state requires obtaining a new ID or driver’s license and moving vehicle registrations, which sometimes involves a tax penalty.
The shift of America from a basically grounded population to an increasingly mobile one has also impacted our relationships. Among young people, relationships can be fleeting and temporary, much like their jobs, and far easier to replace as new apps make meeting people as easy as browsing your phone for a few minutes.
The changes have lead Professor Pugh to document these changes in a book called "The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity,” that came out earlier this year.
While it would be possible for most people to adapt to the new rootless reality and mobile lifestyle, so much of our culture and support institutions are rooted in a past that no longer exists. Our housing options are mismatched to our need for greater mobility convenience; our cities and towns are spending more to support an infrastructure that benefits fewer and fewer people.
At some point there will have to be a massive adjustment, but what’s going to trigger that or how it plays out is harder to fathom.