Social Trends of the 1950s
Social Trends of the 1950s
The decade following World War II was characterized by affluence in much of American society, giving rise to high levels of consumption and a boom in population. Beneath this widespread prosperity, however, lay deepening poverty for some Americans, and the gap between the rich and poor widened.
Automation and Consolidation
Eisenhower’s support for government spending greatly stimulated economic growth during the 1950s. Defense spending, which accounted for half of the federal budget, spurred industrial growth and funded scientific and technological advances. The nation’s first nuclear power plant opened in 1957, and the chemical and electronics industries both boomed. Industrial plants and American homes alike became automated, with electrical devices performing tasks formerly left to humans. Fossil fuel consumption skyrocketed as a result of increased electricity use. With gas prices low, the automobile industry upped production. The first electric computer was built in 1945, and computer production advanced rapidly throughout the 1950s.
Boosted by the production benefits of automation, big business flourished, until less than 0.5 percent of American corporations controlled more than half of the nation’s corporate wealth. These massive corporations crushed and absorbed their competition and formed conglomerates to link companies in different industries. Agriculture mirrored big industry. Technology drastically cut the amount of work needed to successfully grow crops, and many farmers moved to the cities as rich farm companies consolidated family farms, fertilized them with new chemicals, and harvested crops with new machinery.
Advances in science and technology decreased the amount of labor necessary for industry and agriculture to be financially successful and led to consolidation of industry and agriculture into large corporations.
Unions responded to the consolidation of business by consolidating as well. In 1955, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged to form the AFL-CIO. Prosperity meant high wages and few labor complaints, depriving unions of the high-profile status they enjoyed in 1930s and 1940s. Also weakening unions was the decrease in blue-collar workers because of the rise of automation and the accompanying increase in white-collar jobs—office employees, managers, salespersons. This loss of blue-collar workers stripped the labor movement of its core influence and contributed to the sharp decline in union membership during the 1950s.
Results of Prosperity: Suburbanization, the Baby Boom, Religion, and Conservatism
Prosperous American consumers went on a spending spree in the 1950s. The automobile industry benefited markedly from this surge in spending: Americans bought nearly 60 million cars during the 1950s. The resulting increase in mobility contributed to the rise of motels, fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and, most notably, suburbs. Areas once considered too far from jobs in urban centers were now accessible and desirable, and middle-class and wealthy Americans began to flee the poverty and congestion of the cities for outlying areas. Suburbs offered a clean, homogeneous, child-friendly, and safe environment. The American suburban population nearly doubled during the 1950s.
Prosperity and mobility provided by the automobile during the 1950s led middle-class and wealthy Americans to move to suburbs around the nation’s great cities.
Prosperity led Americans to start families earlier and have more children. The birth rate grew steadily from 1950 to its peak in 1957; at the same time, advances in science and medicine led to lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancy. The U.S. population accordingly grew from about 150 million to about 180 million during the 1950s. The baby boom, as this explosion was called, was a product of and a cause for conservative family values—especially about the place of women in American society. Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of the wildly successful Baby and Child Care (1946), suggested that mothers devote themselves to the full-time care of their children. Popular culture depicted marriage and feminine domesticity as a primary goal for American women, and the education system reinforced this portrayal. This revival of domesticity as a social value was accompanied by a revival of religion. Religious messages began to creep into popular culture as religious leaders became famous faces. It was during the 1950s that Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Less Fortunate
Though 1950s prosperity benefited many Americans, it also obscured widespread poverty. More than one-fifth of the nation lived below the poverty line: some in desolate rural conditions as migrant workers, others in the crowded and dirty slums of American cities. As wealthy whites moved to the suburbs, cities exhausted their funds attempting to provide social services to an increasing number of poor urbanites. Historically black and immigrant in population, the urban poor now included an increasing number of Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans, who migrated to the cities when unable to find work in rural areas. The needs of these disadvantaged groups went largely unanswered, and the condition of cities rapidly deteriorated.
American Culture: Television, Rock-and-Roll, and the Beats
Television grew rapidly as the entertainment medium of choice. By the 1960s, more than 90 percent of American households owned at least one television. Television brought a message of conformity and consumerism to the American people. Programs fed Americans a steady diet of cookie-cutter idealizations of American life filled with racial and gender stereotypes. Commercials became pervasive, at times dominating the programs themselves. Television produced many of the period’s heroes and fads, such as the Davy Crockett coonskin cap and the hula hoop.
Television dominated American culture during the 1950s, presenting a cookie-cutter, stereotyped image of the happy, prosperous American family.
Despite the widespread conformity of the period, some elements of culture rebelled. One source of rebellion was rock-and-roll, which rose to prominence in the 1950s. No one epitomized rock-and-roll during the 1950s more than Elvis Presley, who produced 14 consecutive records between 1956 and 1958 that each sold over a million copies. Elvis’s sexual innuendo and hip gyrations shocked many middle-class parents but captured the attention of their children. Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock eschewed traditional painting techniques for more passionate methods, flinging paint across huge canvases.
In the realm of literature, the spirit of rebellion was embodied in the Beats, a group of nonconformists led by writers such as Allan Ginsberg, the author of the long poem Howl (1956), and Jack Kerouac, the author of On the Road (1957). These authors rejected uniform middle-class culture and sought to overturn the sexual and social conservatism of the period. The Beats eventually won favor among college-age Americans, who joined together in protests against the death penalty, nuclear weaponry, racial segregation, and other facets of American life that went largely unquestioned throughout the 1950s. This burgeoning youth movement would explode in the 1960s.
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