Life in the 1950's in America |

Can looking at life in the 1950’s in America teach us anything about today’s consumer culture?


life in the 1950'sI felt like messing with one of my kid’s mind the other day, so I sat down next to him on the couch, snatched the remote control and changed the TV channel from the kids show he was watching to that old 1950’s show “I Love Lucy”. To my disappointment, after being initially aggravated, my kid watched that show with curious interest, seemingly enjoying the moment more than me. I became quickly bored with the whole thing (I guess I never really ‘got’ Lucy; my loss, I know) but my kid kept peppering the air with comments like “look at that cool shirt he’s wearing”, “hey, that’s a sweet car” and “look at that TV, dad, it’s made out of wood!”. And so on. Obviously, the joke was on me.

Even though it was before my time, if you were to ask me what I thought about the era of the 1950’s, some of the things that would come to my mind would probably be: Suburban life, housewives, backyard barbecues and family bomb shelters. Oh yeah, and  “Leave it To Beaver”. But the other day when I asked a car full of kids if they knew anything about the 50’s era their answers conjured up all the trappings of some 1950’s replica display. Things like big, boxy TV’s with puny little black and white screens. Portable record players. Colored ‘plastic’ (Formica!) kitchen tables. Skinny neckties, and those ‘weird kid hats with the raccoon tails’.

Where my thinking would be more along the lines of snapshots of the 1950’s taken from the pages of LIFE Magazine, those kids’ minds were summoning forth rooms full of “stuff”; like pages right out of an old Sears catalog.

Thinking back, they were probably more astute than I gave them credit for being at the time. Their observations not only spoke some truths about our current society, but perhaps some larger truths as well. This got me thinking about how deeply rooted consumerism in America is and why it seems so difficult sometimes to promote a lifestyle to kids these days that doesn’t revolve around buying and spending.

Let’s think back a bit. No doubt, living in the 1950’s was living in a “special time”. America’s birth rate was on par with India’s and the middle class was growing by leaps and bounds. And as this population segment grew, so did its buying power. People were buying houses in the suburbs, carving out their own little slices of greener pasture and outfitting them with the tools and newfangled appliances that would save them time and cut down on work. To this burgeoning class, you could almost argue that basic needs became rights, and that wants became the new ‘needs’. A perception was emerging and a message was being broadcast that the better life may be as close as the next new, shiny object. After all, why worry when everything seemed so hunky-dory?

Population growth also spurred the beginnings of a new youth culture which, when coupled with the expanding impact of television, laid the perfect foundation for a never-seen-before phenomenon: teenagers as a consumer force to be reckoned with. And American business was more than happy to oblige, creating entire industries aimed directly at the youth of America who had more money to spend than the GDP of some small countries.

To keep up with this population growth, industry in the US ramped up production; churning out consumer goods like cars, kitchen appliances, Tupperware and Hula Hoops. There’s an old saying: “If you want to do well, sell people what they need; if you want to get rich, sell people what they want.” Advertising, especially on TV, began to heavily influence those ‘wants’ which were also fueled by credit and loans that were now being offered more readily to the common man by the banks. Do you want it now? Get it now! Pay later. Before, the majority of Americans only had one route to follow in order to get things above and beyond necessities like a car and a home and that way was to work and save for it. But now it was almost as if people were becoming increasingly fascinated by the idea of acquiring things, for the main purpose of, well, acquiring things.

Interestingly though, it didn’t take long at all for anti-consumerism rumblings to begin to emerge as a response to this growing consumer culture. Those involved in this movement, a kind of counterculture, pushed back against what they saw as a shift in America towards becoming a land of mass consumerism. And nestled in there somewhere were the seeds of a coming turning point for social change, pop culture and politics. A counterculture expounding on the virtues of going against the social tide by “getting back to nature”, living simply and searching for something more than a ‘plastic’ existence. And perhaps most ironically, it woudln’t be very long before the external trappings of this dawning “Age Of Aquarius” would also become commercialized and consumer-ized.

Yep, those happy-go-lucky fifties are basically one big consumerism commentary. And one I find at once amusing and alarming, but which also helps to explain why an eight-year-old I know has his own iPhone.

Hey Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do!



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