Is anyone nostalgic for the ’70s?

Thomas Frank: Is anyone nostalgic for the ’70s?

I certainly miss the seventies, and not just because I was a child then. The seventies were the age of the single adult. One reason for that, no doubt, is because that’s when the BBG happened to be passing through the “young adult” portion of the snake, but I believe that other factors may have played an even bigger role in that. In the 1950’s or earlier, there was no socially acceptable place for a single young adult. Colleges were explicitly understood to be “in loco parentis.” My mom spent her single years living at the YWCA. About the only other housing arrangement for a single adult would have been a boarding house, which probably had its own version of “in loco parentis.”

During the 1970’s “singles apartment complexes” emerged as a consumer market category (see here and here). In the midwestern metropolitan area where I live, the housing stock is overwhelmingly single-family (even in the city let alone the suburbs). More to the point, home ownership is a cultural norm, in which “single family” is specified in the norm. An astonishingly large percentage of the non-single-family housing is specifically designated as senior citizen housing. In my particular suburb there is a two-story limit on residential construction, and an extensively micromanagerial system of permits and inspections for rental housing, single family or otherwise.

In terms of American economic history, the 1970s get a bad rap for stagflation, and deservedly so, but the deep early 1980’s recession didn’t start until 1979. The 1973-74 recession caused a lot of temporary layoffs (If you’ve watched “Good Times” lately, that particular anachronism in the theme must have been good for a belly laugh). The 1979-83 recession was a major overhaul of labor economics; a systematic dismantling of the “permanent full time job with benefits,” that is ongoing to this day. The 1970s are that period of history sandwiched between the civil rights legislation of the 60s and the privatization push of the 80s-present. You have no doubt noticed that today there is a civil war within movement liberalism between people who prioritize job security and economic security, who see the postwar period as the high point of civilization, and those who place a higher priority on civil rights and feminism who describe that period as “dress for success, wear a white penis.” Sometimes the latter imply that the former are mistaken in placing a high value on economic security in the first place, and maybe occasionally even join neoliberals and other fuckwits in chiding people about the “old economy,” “legacy costs,” “opportunity society vs. security society,” etc. But the 1970s were, in some real sense, even in spite of the stagflation, a temporal island of “best of both worlds” in the implied employer-employee contract that built the American middle class.

As for Reagan, my theory is this: Affirmative action, for reasons rooted in political expedience (the perfect is the enemy of the good, you know the drill) was implemeted in a way that caused it to apply primarily to government at all levels, government contractors (IIRC correctly the very first affirmative action program was specific to federal construction contractors) and businesses with roles largely defined by public policy such as utilities and to some extent large publicly traded corporations (such as General Motors). For probably unrelated historical reasons, those were also the workplaces most likely to be union shop. Not surprisingly, the civil service and public utility workforce got noticeably blacker. Privatization became civil rights rollback by proxy. To this day clueless progressives are scratching their heads wondering why working class people vote against their own interests. While I’m not accusing anyone of anything, I humbly suggest as a plausible explanation that these “Reagan Democrats,” as of 1980, were not people steeped in the literature of Laissez Faire or Austrian Economics. But they almost certainly were people for whom the end of civil rights clawback justified the means of privatization and perhaps union busting.

And also, of course, the 70s were, as Perlstein noted, a time when America contemplated a future as a nation among nations, a transition that Britain and France seemed to have survived, if anything with an improved quality of life.

About n8chz

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1 Response to Is anyone nostalgic for the ’70s?

  1. Lindsay says:

    I wasn’t born yet, but I have often thought that the 1970s must have been a time when it was a lot more possible to hope that we might voluntarily change our economic system to make it not depend on constant growth.

    Now, the only thing I see happening is each successive iteration of the ruling class plundering everything we have and absconding with the riches, leaving any problems for their successors to deal with (usually by ignoring them, or by saying things like, “whoops! there went Social Security! You’re on your own, suckers!”)

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