July 23, 2024
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Sightings Over Sixty: How Has America Changed?

I was born when Harry Truman was president. I don’t remember him. But I do remember Ike and Elvis, and Ann Landers and and Billy Graham, and Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart.

A lot has changed since those days of the 1950s and ’60s. A lot has stayed the same.

For example, toilet paper today is no different from the toilet paper I grew up with. The house I live in is no different, either. My house was built in 1965, and despite some renovations through its various owners, it remains pretty much the same. My wife and I did redo the kitchen after we moved in. But we still have a refrigerator, a stove, a dishwasher and kitchen sink that aren’t much different from what was here in 1965.

Of course, some things are very different. My phone, for example. My computer, which I have instead of . . . well, I still remember the Smith Corona electric typewriter I got when I was a junior in college. We used to get a daily newspaper delivered to our door. Now we get our news on cable or social media. The news is faster. But is it any better?

Over Thanksgiving dinner my brother-in-law and his brothers started reminiscing about slide rules. Do you remember them? Haven’t seen one of those in about 40 years.

Other things are the same but different at the same time. For example, my car. It basically works the same way that our family Buick worked back in the 1960s. Except our car now has seatbelts and airbags and automatic headlights and a rear-view camera. It’s also Japanese, not American. Our next car might be a hybrid, or fully electric.

I wonder how much people have changed. When I was growing up people respected their elders and had a good old-fashioned Puritan work ethic. Now people are quiet-quitting, taking time off for paternity leave, retiring early.

But maybe I’m just misremembering that old-fashioned work ethic. You know . . .  how we walked to school waist-deep in snow, uphill, both ways?

Nevertheless, we did go to church on Sundays, we said the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and we had dinner as a family every night. And you could go all day without hearing a swear word. Today, perfectly respectable publications use the F-word, and you can hear it on TV as well — not to mention the near ubiquitous use of lesser curse words that involve bodily functions and familial relationships. But one good thing. We do not hear the racial and religious epithets that were so casually thrown around when we were kids.

However, we do have more school shootings. Does that mean we have more guns, or more mental health problems? I don’t know. But one thing that’s about the same now as in the 1960s — the murder rate. It averaged about 5 murders per 100,000 people in the 1960s. After going up in the 1970s and ’80s, the rate is now back down to about 5 again. Would that be considered progress? Something else that hasn’t changed: In the 1960s there was no constitutional right to an abortion. Laws were left to the states. Today, again, we’re in the same situation.

We live longer than our parents and grandparents. Because we’ve given up smoking? But we’re also more obese. Chalk up our longevity to advances in our much-maligned health care system.

We’ve certainly made advances in civil rights since the 1960s, for women, gays, people of color, people with disabilities. When James Meredith went to enroll in the University of Mississippi in 1962, only about 3% of  African Americans went to college. Today it’s 50%. Back in the early 1960s about 10% of women went to college compared to 20% for men. Today, more young women than men go to college — 70% of women and 62% of men.

We now have many more material goods than our families did when we were kids. The 1965 house we currently live in has a one-car garage. Because people back then owned one car. But today a married couple typically drives two cars. Our neighbors across the street, with two grown children at home, owns four cars.

When I was growing up we had one TV. B and I still have one TV. But my friend Peter has four TVs, all of which get Netflix and various other streaming services. I’d venture to say that we all have more clothes, more books, more recreational equipment, more food, more kitchen gadgets, more knickknacks. (And also more debt?) We travel more than our parents and grandparents ever did. But here’s the thing: Are we any happier?

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