Thursday, 24 October 2019

Life Was Better in the 1950s and '60s (1 of 3)

    Life is good. I was born in 1949, and my parents had to scrimp and slave to make ends meet. Now I am an affluent retiree. I've seen the world, and the world is at my fingertips by virtue of the machine with which you are reading this. When I get sick, as I eventually will, there will be medical treatment available which was undreamed of when I was young. Nevertheless, I shall go out on a limb and state that life was better in the 1950s and '60s - not materially, but in the things which really matter. Compared to today, it was particularly good for those growing up. I quail at the thought of the challenges the grandchildren will have to face.
     Now, of course, old farts are always proclaiming the superiority of life when they were young and vigorous. It automatically invites the response: "You wouldn't really want to go back to time when [name your favourite bad example]?" Of course not! There is no such thing as a golden age. So just to even the score, I shall mention a few aspects of that time I do not miss.
    Firstly, prior to Vatican II, there was a lot of prejudice and bad relations between Catholics and Protestants. However, it never came to any sort of significant discrimination or other social evils. And it was not as bad as the present day war of the ungodly against the religious.
    Secondly, there was constant industrial action ie strikes. Far from me to say that unions are useless, but it is definitely the case that membership has collapsed over the past decades, and workers have still become more prosperous. Strikes were most common in unions under control of the Communist parties, which also managed to infiltrate the whole political scene. It was not terrorism, but subversion and treason which we had to face.
     Thirdly, there was the pernicious habit of smoking, which robbed my father of at least 20 years of his life, and my brother and brother-in-law of at least 30. Today 16½ % of adult men - one in six - smoke, with a slightly smaller percentage for women, but in 1945 it was 72%.
     So what was life like materially when I was growing up? For a start, we could go to the measuring worth website and compare the value of money in 1966, the year decimal currency was introduced, with that in 2016. You will immediately note that there has been rampart inflation; based on the CPI, a dollar in 1966 would buy what $12.63 did 50 years later. More to the point, however, the "income value" was twice that of the "real price". What that means is that an hour's labour, or a day's labour, allows you to buy twice as much as it did 50 years ago. In 50 years, we've all become twice as rich.
     Sewage did not come to my suburb until the early 1960s. Prior to that, we had to use an outhouse in the backyard, which a council worker would empty once a week. (What a stinking job!) Television (black and white, of course) did not arrive here in Brisbane until 1959, at which time we all gathered outside the electric goods store to watch the simplistic programs on display. Prior to that, we used to sit around, sometimes in the dark, listening to serials, comedies, and dramas on the radio. And, of course, there was "Saturday Night at the Movies". Three cinemas graced the suburb closest to mine. We got there by public transport, of course, because cars were a middle class luxury, as were telephones. (My family didn't have either.) The lack of cars resulted in another phenomenon: a proliferation of corner stores. You could get your household needs at three such stores within walking distance of my home.
     I know this is all going to sound like the dark ages to a generation brought up on computers, the internet, mobile phones, CDs, and DVDs, but don't you imagine it! Our parents had it tough: first the depression, and then the war. But we grew up in the flush of post war prosperity. Let me give you a few pointers.
  • It was possible to raise a family on a single income. At the bottom of economic ladder where my family belonged, the wife and mother often had to seek part time or casual employment, but single incomes were regarded as the default.
  • Despite that, they could afford children. They don't call us baby boomers for nothing! Today, despite everyone being twice as rich, our fertility is well below replacement rate. What has gone wrong?
  • In 1950 it required 301 weeks' of average income to purchase a median-priced house in a capital city. This was reduced to 200 weeks in 1955, and stayed that way for a couple of decades. Now it is 455.
  • We had full employment. Governments were in danger of losing office if unemployment went as high as 2 per cent. There were cases of workers leaving a job in the morning and picking up a new one in the afternoon.
  • As far a education went, anyone who was at all bright could automatically get a scholarship to university. That was how I, the son of an invalid pensioner, took my first degree. The second I financed by not too arduous part time work. I still don't understand why, these days, a degree should cost you a year's income.
  • And finally, we didn't lock our doors at night. Crime might have been reduced in recent decades, but it nowhere near as low as what my generation was accustomed to.
     So, materially, life in the 1950s and 1960s was not too bad. But socially it was much better. Every index of social disintegration is worse now than it used to be.
     In Part 2, I shall explain how certain alleged improvements are not necessarily so.
     In Part 3, I shall reveal the social disintegration facing children growing up today.
An American woman has said pretty much the same thing about her own country.