This post is by Phil, and I’m writing about the slow pace of change in 21st-century America.
[Note added later: at the time that I wrote this, I was unaware that a year-and-a-half ago Andrew had written a similar post on the theme. I suspect I, and perhaps most of this blog's readers, missed it because he posted it on New Year's Day].
[Note added later still: evidently I'm wrong and I did see Andrew's post, because I left a comment on it: "If you want to pick a 50-year period, with nice round numbers for the start and the end, my vote for the biggest lifestyle change for Americans is 1900-1950. Radio, telephone, television, indoor plumbing, refrigerators, home air conditioning, automobiles, airplanes… in the past 50 years all of those things have gotten better than they used to be (although I’m not sure there have been any major advances in indoor plumbing), but the change is small compared with having vs not having." And I was wrong about indoor plumbing, which most people did not have in 1900.]
At lunch yesterday I stopped into a bookstore (yes, we still have them!) and picked up an Elmore Leonard book that I haven’t previously read: The Big Bounce. The cover has photos of some present-day actors, and says “now a major motion picture!”, so I figured the book was probably written in the 90s or early naughts…until I came across a reference to someone living in a “hundred thousand dollar house,” in a context in which that was clearly supposed to be a big number. The book was in fact published in 1969.
And here’s the thing: if not for the occasional mention of how much something costs, you’d never know. People work 9-to-5 jobs, they catch a plane to go on vacations far away, they drive hither and yon and buy things in shopping centers and so on. I’m only 1/5 of the way through the book, so it’s possible that at some point the fact that nobody has a cell phone will be glaringly obvious, but as far as basic lifestyle is concerned 1969 seems a lot like 2014.
This is not the first time I have noticed that in spite of claims that the pace of change keeps accelerating, in fact most people’s lives are about the same as those of our parents when they were our age. When I have pointed this out to others, they sometimes disagree strongly: Cell phones! Computers! GPS in your car! Clumping cat litter! Sure, I’m not saying _nothing_ has changed, and indeed the Civil Rights Movement led to some major changes for a substantial number of people. But for a very large swath of society things just aren’t that different.
By contrast, consider the 50 years from 1910 to 1960.
In 1910 there were only 8 telephones per 100 people in the U.S., and they were much more common among farmers than urbanites..which makes sense when you consider that if someone in a city wanted to talk to a friend or to buy something, they could simply walk where they needed to go within a few minutes or half an hour, whereas a farmer might be hours from a store or from some of their nearby friends. The Model T had been introduced a couple of years earlier but cars were still uncommon and most people had never ridden in one. If you wanted to go somewhere, you rode a horse, or took a horse cart, or you walked (unless you and your destination were on a rail line). Broadcast radio did not exist. Movie theaters were just starting to be built at a rapid pace, to play short films and newsreels (there were no feature films yet). Most Americans lived in the countryside or in small towns; most roads were unpaved; 30% of workers were farmers. People had ice-boxes, and some guy would come around and deliver ice. Most people used outhouses, indoor plumbing being rare. Life expectancy at birth was about 50, and even someone who survived infancy would probably die by his or her mid-sixties. The U.S., though highly industrialized compared to the rest of the world, was still largely a rural, agrarian society in which most people had none of the conveniences we now consider the hallmarks of modern life.
By 1960, most people lived in cities; had indoor plumbing; had a telephone and a radio and a television and a refrigerator; more than half of households had a car; life expectancy for people who survived infancy was a decade longer than in 1910, and many infants survived ; most roads were paved; most workers worked regular hours at office or factory jobs.
In short, what life was like for a typical person in 1960 was very, very different from what life was like for a typical person in 1910. The change from 1964 to 2014 has been much less. Sure, things have changed: our telephones fit in our pockets, our televisions are in color and are 10x larger, we can access the information and entertainment of the world within seconds, etc. But as far as day to day living is concerned, things haven’t changed all that much since the days of Leave It To Beaver.
To put it another way: My grandfather grew up drawing water with a hand pump, using an outhouse, and climbing into the family’s horse-drawn carriage for trips to town; and died having been a passenger in a jet airplane and watched men walk on the face of the moon. I may yet live to see changes that big — the “singularity”, an end to senescence and death, etc. — but he definitely saw more changes in the first 49 years of his life than I have seen so far in mine.
I realize some people are going to disagree, and I have to admit that it’s hard to think of a way to quantify what I’m talking about. If someone claims the ability to access the internet wirelessly is just as important, as a lifestyle impact, as the ability to pick up a phone and talk to someone many miles away, what can I say? How can one quantify these things?
This post is by Phil