Skip to content

Back when fifty years was a long time ago

New Year’s Day is an excellent time to look back at changes, not just in the past year, but in the past half-century.

Mark Palko has an interesting post on the pace of changes in everyday life. We’ve been hearing a lot in the past few decades about how things are changing faster and faster. But, as Palko points out, the difference between life in 1962 and life today does not seem so different, at least for many people in the United States. Sure, there are some big changes: nonwhites get more respect, people mostly live longer, many cancers can be cured, fewer people are really really poor but it’s harder to hold down a job, cars are more reliable, you can get fresh fish in the suburbs, containers are lighter and stronger, vacations in the Caribbean instead of the Catskills, people have a lot more stuff and a lot more place to put it, etc etc etc. But life in the 1950s or 1960s just doesn’t seem so different from how we live today.

In contrast, Palko writes, “You can also get some interesting insights looking at the way pop culture portrayed these changes”:

In the middle of the century, particularly in the Forties, there was a great fascination with the Gay Nineties. It was a period in living memory and yet in many ways it seemed incredibly distant, socially, politically, economically, artistically and most of all, technologically. In 1945, much, if not most day-to-day life depended on devices and media that were either relatively new in 1890 or were yet to be invented. Even relatively old tech like newspapers were radically different, employing advances in printing and photography and filled with Twentieth Century innovations like comic strips.

The Nineties genre was built around the audiences’ self-awareness of how rapidly their world had changed and was changing. The world of these films was pleasantly alien, separated from the viewers by cataclysmic changes.

Palko continues:

The comparison to Mad Men is useful. We have seen an uptick in interest in the world of fifty years ago but it’s much smaller than the mid-Twentieth Century fascination with the Nineties and, more importantly, shows like Mad Men, Pan Am and the Playboy Club focused almost entirely on social mores. None of them had the sense of travelling to an alien place that you often get from Gay Nineties stories.

Indeed, when I’ve watched Mad Men, one thing that’s struck me is that I can see where so much of our increased wealth in the past 50 years has gone: we have faster cars and more planes, we travel farther, we have lots more furniture and appliances and bigger houses and bigger apartments. Also fun things like computers that allow even amateurs like myself to write millions of words in our spare time. But, as Palko says, life as of 1965 was not so different from now. The changes from 1900 to 1950 do seem to be bigger.

Palko cites Paul Krugman who writes about the unpredictability of economic progress, but I wonder if that all misses the point, a bit. For white middle-class Americans, material life was already OK in 1965. Sure, improvement is fine—I certainly won’t complain about the expensive medical technology that fixed my broken wrist and cleared up my heartbeat, nor will I complain about all the advances that have led to Stan. (And, yes, improvements for ethnic minorities are important, but of course most of the economic growth went to whites.) Overall, there has a limit on what economic progress can do to change our lives. In short, the difference between the Late Late Late Show and Netflix is just inherently not that big.


  1. Brent Buckner says:

    I’d be interested in a comparison of lifetime expected leisure hours of the cohorts under consideration, and further what proportion of the relevant populations would be deemed middle class. Maybe I’ll be interested enough to try to look up someone’s approximations!

    Rooming houses seem less common – privacy seems to have become more relatively affordable (zoning issues decreasing supply stipulated).

    Best New Year’s wishes, thank you for the flow of posts!

  2. John Christie says:

    It’s cherry picking times. I imagine the difference between 1900 and 1850 was relatively small… or 1800… But again, that depends on where you live. In the deep south on a plantation that change was very large.

    The difference between an early Nokia phone and an iPhone 5 is massive. The biggest difference in cultural change, especially in countries where computers and land line phones were not prevalent when they appeared, is between having a cell phone and not having one.

    Nevertheless, examining such things does cause one to consider the extent and impact of certain technologies.

    • Andrew says:


      The 1800/1850 and 1850/1900 comparisons are interesting. I hadn’t thought of those. Regarding 1950/2010, I agree there have been big changes in other countries. I was specifically talking about middle class life in the United States.

      • Wayne says:

        Hobbes: A new decade is coming up.

        Calvin: Yeah, big deal! Hmph. Where are the flying cars? Where are the moon colonies? Where are the personal robots and the zero gravity boot, uh? You call this a new decade?! You call this the future?? HA! Where are the rocket packs? Where are the disintegration rays? Where are the floating cities?

        Hobbes: Frankly, I’m not sure people have the brains to manage the technology they’ve got.

        Calvin: I mean, look at this! We still have weather?! Give me a break!

        see also

        • Andrew says:


          Palko does discuss the “flying cars” thing but makes a good argument that backward comparisons are more informative than forward comparisons.

          • Wayne says:

            It’d be interesting to do the opposite: instead of picking two eras and comparing them, name the huge, life-changing inventions and see where they fall on the timeline.

            One huge game-changer was the 1940’s and the discovery/invention/manufacture of antibiotics. I would also suggest the Polio vaccine (1960’s). Other less-game-changing things come to mind: the railroad, high-rise construction (elevators, steel construction, city sewage), audio recording (phonograph, etc), audio transmission (radio), general jet travel, (in the US) the interstate highway system.

            Another way of looking at progress would be whether we would be willing to live without the technology or not. It would be hard to imagine a reward you could give me to make it worth my while to live without antibiotics. Cellphones are embedded in our lives now, but I could live without a cellphone and the reward for doing so wouldn’t have to be huge. (Smaller than living without hot showers and indoor plumbing, actually.)

      • Anonymous says:

        Actually the changes from 1800 to 1850 were much in selected areas of North America, Western Europe, particularly in travel and communications.

        In 1800 communicaions was at the rate of a fast horse (leaving aside a couple of semaphore telagraphs or a homing pidgeon) and travel/transport was either wind powered or animal powered (perhaps at best practical of 20 km/hr-roughly the speed of a Post Coach on a high quality posting road in the UK).

        By 1850 in some parts of the world commuications between points was at the speed of light –telegraph , and travel was at some speed say 50-60 km/hour or more by train. Ships on the North Atlantic run were runnning under steam and changing communications and travel times from weeks to days.

        For a fun read on the communications side have a look at “The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers”

        I particularly liked the point that militry secrecy became more important as the news of an attack was now arriing before the attacking army, something that had not always happened before.

    • Joe Smith says:

      There were enormous changes from 1850 to 1900. During that time period chemistry took huge leaps forward, steel came into wide spread use, electricity was harnessed, commercial refrigeration came into use and internal combustion engines were developed. Maybe not everyone had every latest convenience but those developments were part of their world. The rate of change may have peaked around 1900.

      Look at the difference between a state of the art French battleship launched in 1850: (note that it was built out of wood)

      and British battleships built right around 1900:

      (In 1906 battleship design took another big step forward with HMS Dreadnought).

  3. dilbert dogbert says:

    I was growing up in the 50’s and remember the movies. What struck me then was the change in the clothes people wore. I think that may have been due to change from heating with wood to using gas or oil. One did not need so many layers to be comfortable.
    At grandpa’s place, in the 40’s, we all gathered around the pot bellied wood stove on the back porch. At home we had a gas furnace. There was an uneven distribution.

  4. Lord says:

    In part this depends on being old enough to remember fifty years ago. Those not able often suffer a failure of imagination with a lack of understanding how life existed without mobile phones and the internet.

  5. Jan says:

    I was born in the early forties and, all things considered, I think the change in global life-experience during the past fifty years has been quite as large as the previous fifty years. Netflix is utterly different from the Late, Late Show in the range of choice and, hence, the typical pleasure from it.

    A more persuasive argument is that the last fifty years of change has been both good and bad, close enough in weight to undermine any assertion of net progress. Indeed, during the next fifty years, the negative effects of “progress” will become far too large to ignore. Even if we are not forced to pay for our monstrous ecological destruction, surely the world saving glut will prove to be extremely durable, giving rise to stagnant economies and, hence, worldwide plutocracies so repressive that they will obliterate the difference in the experience of living under “democratic” and “authoritarian” governments.

    • Mark Palko says:

      I think the relevant question is which advance is greater:

      Netflix (2012) from the Late, Late Show (1952)


      the Late, Late Show (1952) from a one minute film of a man sneezing (1892)

  6. Marc says:

    I graduated from undergrad in the early 80’s then did two stints in grad school. One in the late 80’s the other in the early 2000’s. It’s interesting to me that I feel the same way. I don’t think the changes were life-altering or, frankly, much different. They seem to build from a theme. For example, research was harder to do in my undergrad/grad in the 80’s because I had to physically go to libraries. That changed. I used typewriters the first time, computers the second. But fundamentally, the change was a sort of slip-stream, not a clear break. It was made easier, but at the same time more demanding by the ease of accessing information. And cell phones etc? Really not life-changing either, frankly. I could always phone someone throughout my life, and to be quite honest, there are rarely times when calling someone on my mobile is *necessary*. I functioned just fine with payphones and landlines for years.

    I’ve driven my whole life, flown my whole life, and technology has just become part of life. So these 50 years really aren’t that much different for people in my bracket here in the US at all. I think of life 100 years ago and I think of it as some alien existence. I imagine my grandparents coming over here on a ship to live carrying a set of close and a few possessions knowing no one (and barely speaking English), and I now think of my workmate flying over with his family and ordering all his household stuff online and having contacts here while having English as a second language his whole life and even his 7 year old daughter speaking it. That’s a wide, yawning gap for me to wrap my head around. What will life be like 50 years from now? With technology maybe just more of the same, slipping quietly into everyone’s lives. Different, but identifiable, just like me looking back to my childhood. Things are different, but not alien.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It makes a big difference whether one chooses 1945 or 1950. Or most years in the 60s and 70s (due to wars).

    Many, many families suffered, due to loss of human lives. Also war in 2000s, but not nearly as encompassing.

    Peace (well, sort of): Biggest difference for regular families.

  8. Manoel Galdino says:

    Internet and mobile devices are the most important inventions. I’d say that there isn’t much difference between 1950 and 1980, but I’d bet (I’d say I’m about 60% sure) that the difference between say the eighties and 2030 will be quite huge.

  9. Zach says:

    I think human brain maps whatever technology is available onto a relatively constant-across-time template for human experience. A futuristic science fiction movie can have exactly the same beats as a western, just with ray guns and spaceships instead of revolvers and horses.

  10. How do we even measure change? How do we compare the computer revolution to the steam revolution or the radio/TV/telephone revolution to the printed book revolution? Or improvements in civil rights for women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, gays, etc.?

    Even seemingly simple things like income are incomparable, because the available goods have changed (such as an iPad or a non-stop flight from NYC to Seoul, or more pointedly, a seat on the front of a bus if I was black). Or dress codes, which sent off wigs in the early late 1700s/early 1800s, hats in the mid 1900s, and for most jobs, ties and dress trousers in the late 1900s (Andrew’s keeping one foot squarely in the last century with his jeans, tie, and shirtsleeves ensembles).

    Qualitatively, watching movies from the 1980s shocks me because they resemble the 1950s as much or more than the 2010s. But then I close my eyes and it seems almost like yesterday and I don’t remember feeling fundamentally different. During the 1950s revival in the mid-1970s (think Happy Days), the 1950s seemed ancient.

  11. I think you pretty much touched on it at the end of your post–the economic growth of the last fifty years has gone to adding more humans and adding 10 years to our life expectancy. There has not been a radical shift in how we live. The radical shift has been in how we die.

  12. Nameless says:

    It seems to me that changes in the way of life come in short bursts. Sort of a “punctuated equilibrium”, where periods of slow and insignificant changes are followed by revolutionary transformations. In each case, there’s a small number of technologies which eventually come together to radically change the way things are done. Technologies may be around for a while before they can bring about the revolution.

    The transformation of the early 1900’s is essentially based on two technologies, the assembly line and the electricity. Electricity was known long before that. Its basic principles were well understood by physicists by 1850, and the first steam turbine generator of essentially modern design was invented in the early 1880’s. Yet it took even longer for the electricity to “take”. Per capita residential electricity consumption in the U.S. went from essentially zero in 1900 to about 50% of modern level in 1950. Production doubled between 1920 and 1928, doubled again between 1928 and 1941 (would have been sooner if not for the Great Depression), and doubled again between 1941 and 1950.

    Likewise, the digital revolution is based essentially on the invention of the microprocessor. The first commercial microprocessor came out in 1971, and its precursors, smaller-scale integrated circuits, were around by the early 60’s. Yet it did not begin to change everyday lives till the 90’s.

    By the same token, the technology that will bring about the next transformation is almost certainly around. After the next revolution we still won’t have flying cars or personal space travel, because there’s nothing in the labs that has any promise of getting us there. What we will have, and soon, is the proliferation of personal robots, in the most general sense. The technology is just getting to the point where one could have a mildly intelligent machine that can interact with its surroundings, move around, perform basic tasks, which does not cost 10 million dollars and does not require a megawatt-power supercomputer to power it.

    Here one of the core revolutionizing technologies is computer vision. Humans tend to think of vision as easy and simple. It’s nothing but. For a computer, it’s complicated and seriously compute-intensive. Thanks to Moore’s Law, the microchip in your iPad (which probably cost $20 to make) has roughly the same amount of computing power as the fastest supercomputer of 1993. The same microprocessors which were around in 1971 are finally getting powerful and cheap enough to do really interesting things when you put them into consumer electronics.

    One of the surest signs that the revolution is around the corner is the fact that multiple auto manufacturers are already testing self-driving cars, and it’s only the inertia and legal roadblocks that prevent them from hitting the mass market now. We can reasonably expect to see them mass produced in the streets in the next 3-5 years.

    • Right, self-driving cars are a very good example, both with regard to when the biggest changes have occurred or are going to occur, and also with regard to how the transformative technologies have long gestational periods.

      The technological revolution that characterized the rapid change in the 20th century is the highly mature, highly integrated industrial economy. The kind that manufactures vast amounts of synthetic chemicals, semiconductors, biotechnologies. This economy came fully into being through the WWII and post-war era and is responsible for the technologies that have most radically changed how the average person lives their lives — electrification, medical technology, global shipping and trade, vast communication infrastructure, the mobility of mass transit and the automobile and air travel, mass entertainment on a vast industrial scale. These are numerous technologies that vary individually with regard to being “revolutionary” but almost none of them are that transformative alone. (Some are, such as antiobiotics and vaccines, semiconductors, etc.) But they all rely upon an enormous, interdependent industrial economy at a high level of development. (Which, by the way, is very bad news with regard to any given apocalyptic scenario — civilization as we know it is far more fragile than people think because of its deep and complex interdependence.) This is what accounts for that difference from 1890 to 1940 and from 1920 to 1970. There truly was vast change during a long period roughly centered on 1940.

      The obvious and long-standing candidate for the new revolutionary technology is computing and computer networking. (I think the latter is more influential; though of course the former is a necessary condition for the latter.) But despite what we like to think, bedazzled by the rapid pace of change in information technology, it really hasn’t resulted in the startling changes that we’re talking about with regard to 1890 to 1940. But, as you say or imply, I agree that it’s because this cluster of technologies hasn’t completed their synergistic integration such that they become revolutionary in this respect. But they are very close. Self-driving cars are very close, as are other sorts of robotic devices that people will rely upon and encounter such that their daily lives are quite altered from the present. But those are just specific examples — they are just about possible now because of the large cluster of technologies coming into their maturity. Ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous networking, and both very cheap.

      I think that most of my adult lifetime (I’m about your age, about 50) will actually be seen as sort of a relative slow period of change — all the foundational work of the revolutionary computing economy was done, and that’s exciting, but it didn’t result during this period in truly radical change in peoples’ lives because it was … foundational. Just like all the foundational work for that highly-mature industrialization of mid-20th was done (during a longer period) centered around a hundred years prior, the mid-19th. Mid-20th tech and industrialization was bootstrapping, maturing, and accelerating upon the foundations of all that basic 19th century science and industry. I really think that, with regard to computing technology and industry, we’ve been living in the equivalent of the 19th century. It actually hasn’t truly taken off yet.

  13. Phil says:

    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.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    Transportation barely sped up at all in the thousands of years between the domestication of the horse and the steam ship a couple of hundred years ago. Then we kept getting faster transportation and went to the Moon 44 years ago, which seems incredible today. But then we stopped getting faster, to the surprise of sci-fi writers.