In March, Americans celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in Alabama, where African Americans protested for voting rights and were met with billy clubs and tear gas. At an event in Selma, President Obama emphasized the considerable race issues that remain, but also celebrated the progress that’s been made on civil rights since the march. It was an all too rare example of a politician suggesting things have gotten better since the bygone days of Reagan, Kennedy, or Eisenhower, the Swinging Sixties, or the so-called Greatest Generation.
This veneration of the past is widespread. A recent poll asked Americans which decade of the 20th century they would most like to go back to; the most popular answer was the 1950s. That’s linked to a human tendency to judge things on a relative basis. For those who lived through them, the 1950s were a happy time of growth in both income and opportunity, while the past decade has witnessed stagnation and rising inequality. Yet by almost every other objective measure, life is simply much better now than it was in the ’50s for just about everyone—and that should give us considerable confidence that progress will continue in the future.
It’s hard to find a measure of the quality of life in the U.S. that was not markedly lower in 1950 than it is today. In that year the median family income was $28,000, compared with $64,000 in 2013. Life expectancy at birth was 68 years, vs. 79 today, and tuberculosis, syphilis, whooping cough, and measles were still considerable killers—with prevalence between 10 and more than a hundred times today’s levels. One reason for poorer health was lower-quality housing: About a third of houses still lacked decent indoor plumbing (compared with fewer than 2 percent today), and air conditioning was a rare luxury. The homicide rate did climb in the 1960s and ’70s, but it has dropped since, and the 1950s level was higher than today’s. The year 1950 was also when the Korean War broke out—1.5 million American men were drafted to fight, and more than 36,000 died (five times the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Or look at rights: Women were excluded from the draft, but largely also from executive positions in industry and government. And there was just one woman U.S. senator in 1950. A decade before Selma and the victories of the civil rights movement, blacks across much of the country were disenfranchised, segregated, and discriminated against at every turn. As late as 1960, polls suggested an almost universal view among whites that interracial marriage was a bad idea. (Today that view is held by fewer than a quarter of poll respondents.) No one even bothered polling about gay marriage in the ’60s, when homosexuality itself was illegal.
So why would anyone want to be transported back to a decade of greater poverty, ill health, violence, and legally enforced discrimination? Perhaps because the decade is remembered for the relative progress it represented. The 1950s were surely better than the 1940s, when the world was embroiled in war, or the 1930s, when it was mired in global depression. And during the ’50s, median family income did increase by more than a third (today it’s only about the same as it was in 1997). Car ownership rapidly expanded (even if the cars were un-air-conditioned deathtraps with lousy gas mileage), and television stations spread across the country (even if the programming was pablum).
And that progress made it a happy decade for those living through it. One of the strongest results from studies of people’s reports of their well-being or life satisfaction is that change drives attitudes. People who lose a limb report themselves unhappy for a while but then habituate to living without an arm and go back to their original levels of reported happiness. People who get a raise at work say they’re happier—but only for the couple of years before they get used to the richer lifestyle it affords. One of the few things that drives longer-term changes in satisfaction is the alteration of significant status signs—being unemployed can permanently reduce the level of one’s self-reported satisfaction, for example.
As a period of rapid growth and increasing opportunities to buy exciting new technologies like the car and the television, the 1950s were set to be a happy decade. The percentage of Americans who reported themselves “very happy” in surveys climbed from 43 percent in 1948 to 53 percent by 1957. But that happiness was not based on a lasting foundation—the decade ended with quality-of-life issues largely unaddressed for women, African Americans, gays, and many others. By 1970 the percentage of people reporting themselves “very happy” was back to the 1948 level.
The happiness research clearly suggests that, based on quality-of-life measurement, the average American today transported back to the 1950s would be made miserable by the change—permanently so for minority groups. The good old days are good only for those who were young and lucky at the time and can’t remember them terribly well now.
Just because older people wear spectacles with a rose tint doesn’t mean young people need to listen to their claims of being a better (more moral, hardworking, and decent) generation. That’s not to say young people couldn’t be considerably better still—less prejudiced and more peaceful and appreciative of their parents, for a start. Nonetheless, it’s pretty much a certainty that the true greatest generation—the most tolerant, best educated, most productive—is the one about to be born. Stop pining for the good old days: This is as good as it gets … until it gets better.