The Chronicle Review

Making Sense of the 'Me Decade'

Ernst Haas, Getty Images

Richard M. Nixon resigned in 1974 under threat of impeachment from the Watergate scandal.
October 24, 2010

Does anyone really understand the 1970s? My excuse is that I was only 11 when they passed from the scene. What's yours? Even those folks 10 or 20 years older than I am, who ostensibly were at least semiconscious for the Equal Rights Amendment, Evel Knievel, busing, blackouts, Archie Bunker, Gerald Ford, pet rocks, disco, Jonestown, and stagflation can't seem to offer much in the way of sense-making for the "me decade."

Part of the problem in defining the era is that nobody can even agree when it really began, since of course, history rarely corresponds neatly to our calendar system of decades. Roughly, there can be said to exist the long seventies and the short seventies. In Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New Press), Jefferson Cowie, an associate professor of labor history at Cornell University, takes the long view, starting the 1970s on the last day of the sixties when the dissident mine worker leader Joseph (Jock) Yablonski was murdered along with his family on December 31, 1969. The dirty deed had been the work of William Anthony (Tony) Boyle, the—as Cowie puts it—"authoritarian" president of the United Mine Workers of America. Besides serving as a timely marker of the start of the decade, the event is a significant metaphor for labor shooting itself in the foot (or head) throughout the 1970s.

Laura Kalman in Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (W.W. Norton), and Dominic Sandbrook in Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right (Knopf), take the shorter view, beginning their stories with the resignation of Richard Nixon and the swearing in of Gerald Ford as America's only unelected president. Other vice presidents who ascended had at least been elected to serve that secondary role. Ford had been appointed in the wake of Spiro Agnew's 1973 resignation because of a criminal charge and a bribery scandal. And since Ford lost his bid to serve a full term, he was never elected to even a statewide office, having served only as a U.S. Congressman from Michigan. That political history makes this clumsy, "accidental" president an even better poster child for the politics of the decade than the one-term governor/peanut farmer who succeeded him.

Of course, we could just as easily have picked the 1975 fall of Saigon as the beginning of the 1970s; or the 1973 oil shock after the Yom Kippur War; or Roe v. Wade; or even the violence at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969; or even Richard Nixon's inauguration in January of that year; or the political assassinations of the previous year. What makes the decade fascinating and so difficult to pin down is that it was, in fact, a vortex in which postwar America was being shaken up, broken apart and remolded into something new.

The pill had been approved for use in 1960, and abortion had been decriminalized across wide swaths of America a few years before 1973's Roe v. Wade, but it wasn't until the 1970s that sexual norms really broke down—whether that was at the libertine discothèque Plato's Retreat; or in divorce courts across America; or among the rapidly increasing number of parents that bore children out of wedlock. What was particularly amazing about the wholesale, qualitative shift toward household instability during the 1970s is that the divorce rate and the frequency of nonmarital childbearing rose so fast across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. By decade's end, educated folks had leveled off in terms of household structure and childbearing norms, while the poor and minorities kept experiencing rising rates of out-of-wedlock children and relationship churn. As Andrew J. Cherlin reports in his book, Marriage-Go-Round (Knopf, 2009), today one-quarter of American children will have, before they are 15, two cohabiting father figures (and one in 12 will experience three or more!). For those born to the least educated, the numbers are much higher.

Before we decide the story of the 1970s is one of family dissolution, changing gender norms, and conservative backlash, we need to keep in mind that other aspects we associate with that time were, in fact, still very much in their infancy. For example, the women's liberation movement and the push for an Equal Rights Amendment may have seemed—especially by the time Betty Ford spoke in favor of an ERA in 1975—as the culmination of a (second wave) feminist awakening that had begun, perhaps, with the publication of Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963.

However, taking the demographer's higher-altitude view, work roles in the 1970s looked more like those of the 1950s that popular culture nostalgized at the time in films like Grease and television shows like Happy Days. In the 1950s, for example, 17 percent of mothers with children worked outside the home. By 1975, at the height of the push for an ERA, one-third of moms were holding down jobs. In one sense that's quite a change over 20 years—almost doubling the percentage. However, the 16-percentage-point increase is peanuts (no offense, Mr. Carter) compared with the rise in women's work that has occurred once the ERA went down in flames. After all, working moms were still in the minority during the 1970s—that is, they weren't the norm. By the 1990s, however, upward of two-thirds of mothers were in the formal labor force. And thanks to the Great Recession's destruction of jobs in largely male sectors of the economy—construction and manufacturing, mainly—women have now quietly reached parity with men in the work force for the first time since records have been kept. Now that's social change.

Was the 1970s women's liberation movement a key driver in all this or just a bunch of epiphenomenal hot air (on both sides)? Again, if we take the political-economy view, it seems that the forces that led to increased female participation in the labor force were largely outside the scope of the social movement itself: namely, the relative returns to brain and brawn. As the economy started to shift thanks to, first, imports, and later, computerization, unskilled physical labor became devalued in favor of high-skilled human-services and information-sector jobs that provided greater opportunities to women. Perhaps women's libbers should have marched for a laptop in every office and high-speed Internet access in every home. If we could have only known.

Ditto for economic polarization. We think of economic disparity as a largely Republican phenomenon. The age of Reagan was when the rich got richer and the poor were left to rot. Or perhaps we blame the decline of organized labor. But it turns out that the very same processes that led to the shift in gender fortunes also drove rising inequality—with the added dash of changing family structure and accelerating rates of immigration after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The proportion of income garnered by the top 10 (or 1) percent, for example, really started taking off in the early 1970s—long before the Gipper took office. In fact, the steepest slope in the steady upward trajectory of inequality occurred between 1979 and 1981, before Reagan's policies took effect. Meanwhile, labor had already lost its power in the face of global competition long before real wages began to stagnate in the 1970s.

There is a robust and continuing debate about the extent of this economic polarization (in the 1970s and now). Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale University, sees the divide as having grown particularly wide. The sociologist Scott Winship has reanalyzed the data with some corrections and finds that things are not as bad as liberals like Hacker generally claim. And besides, there is little hard evidence—and even less consensus—on the consequences of rising inequality. So while something was going economically wrong during the "me decade," it's hard to put a finger on just what it was. But whatever it was, it was well beyond the control of Ford and Carter, despite data compiled by Larry Bartels that purports to show inequality rising faster under Republican presidencies. The rate of polarization may vary slightly due to partisan political fortunes, but the direction has been steadily up over the last 40 years.

Finally, the 1970s saw two steps forward and two steps back with respect to race in America. While for the first time we witnessed the existence of a black middle class that was championed in important books such as William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (University of Chicago Press, 1978), it turned out that most of the gains of that decade were a result of the expansion of black public-sector employment. (Hispanics were a rapidly changing demographic group in this period and too heterogeneous to summarize here. Needless to say, the result at decade's end was not much progress for this group as a whole either.) For all the heat and light created by resistance to busing (think Southie in Boston) and opposition to affirmative action (think Regents of the University of California v. Bakke), blacks and whites stood at pretty much the same place at the end of the decade as they did at the beginning on most measures of segregation, health disparities, income differentials, and so on. (The 1990s represent the time of greatest progress for reducing these disparities, at least with respect to income and higher education.)

While these books differ on when the 1970s started, they agree about when it ended and the 1980s marched in: the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president in early 1981 (or, in Cowie's case, where he is focusing on labor and the working class, perhaps with Reagan's firing of the air-traffic controllers a few months later). Of course, deregulation, financial innovation, the arms race, and the personal computer were all really inventions of the 1970s that we now associate with the 1980s, or even later periods. Go figure.

Historians of the recent past face the challenge of writing for the many readers who will have themselves lived through the period in question. That means there are thousands of "experts" on the topic, all with their own theories of "what happened back then." (We sociologists have to contend with this issue all the time.) Doing recent history in the age of the Internet—where readers can find most of the sources themselves—makes that tightrope all the more precarious to walk. What historians have to offer, in this case, is one of two approaches. They can give a novel spin on the era, revealing obscure facts and trends that were hitherto unnoticed by scholars and lay readers alike. Or, alternatively, historians can provide a systematic, less anecdotal gloss on the material (which will often lead, in turn, to an unconventional take).

These books by Cowie, Kalman, and Sandbrook provide neither (with the possible exception of the archival work of Kalman on the Ford and Carter administrations). Their cultural history is thin. Cowie, for example, puts much weight on the symbolic significance of the movies Rocky (1976) and Taxi Driver (1976). Meanwhile, all three volumes rely on the anchorman Howard Beale's "I'm as mad as hell!" speech in Network (1976) to capture the populist anger of the time. While these movies were certainly popular, we might ask how Jaws (1975) or Star Wars (1977) embodied the decade—or Blazing Saddles (1974), Superman (1978), or Animal House (1978), all of which outgrossed the films Cowie mentions.

The point is that when we don't cherry-pick but are instead more systematic in our analysis of popular culture, the story is a lot murkier. What's more, the authors fail to dig past the headlines into the cultural underbrush where new phenomena were emerging: From hacker culture to hip-hop, from conceptual art to cyborgs, the 1970s was a time of experimentation whose fruits we can see all around us today (the Internet is and the trackball mouse are just two of those fruits).

The real historiographic question these volumes raise is: Why now? Are we living in an echo of the 1970s? As the midterm elections approach, articles abound wondering if Obama is more Reagan circa 1982 or Carter circa 1979. Middle East peace negotiations are under way. Economic stagnation rules the land, and the angry right is on the rise again in the form of the Tea Party (financed by backstage billionaires, much like the so-called New Right during the 70s). Anti-Muslim xenophobia dominates talk radio as it did during the Iranian hostage crisis.

But there are important differences, too. Whereas stagflation challenged the prevailing economic wisdom of the Phillips curve (which posited that unemployment and inflation moved in opposite directions), today we face the paradoxical prospect of exploding debt, jobless growth, and the risk of deflation. Some climate scientists in the mid-70s worried about food shortages in the coming ice age; today it's global warming that tops the environmental movement's list of concerns.

Reading these histories, one is struck by the desire to go back and warn folks about all the disruptions that were shortly to come on the scene. The forces that would soon alter history—such as the personal-computer revolution, the decline of the Soviet Union, or the rise of jihadism—were really subterranean for most of that period. (After all, who in 1979 could have predicted the role of Afghanistan in American history, or, for that matter, the rise of the SUV, the iPhone, and child obesity?) As such, they are also largely missing from these history books.

Thus the most important question these works leave with the reader is: What are we missing now? What movements and forces that will dominate life in the next decade or two are lurking, unbeknownst to us, right beneath our noses? I'll give my pet rock to whomever can answer that one.

Dalton Conley is vice provost and dean of the social sciences and a professor of sociology at New York University. The paperback edition of his latest book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, was published this year by Vintage.