Despite the anxiety of the nuclear age, peacetime unleashed a torrent of energy and domestic production. Large-scale government programs such as the G.I. Bill lifted millions out of poverty and into the suburbs. Yet something was missing. Television hinted at what it might be with its low-key sexualization of commodities. Advertisers discovered that nothing sells so well as when it is subtly associated with the female body, even if it has no individual essence.
Ownership of mass-produced products created a placeless community of consumers. “Men who never saw or knew one another,” wrote Daniel Boorstin, “were held together by their common use of objects so similar that they could not be distinguished even by their owners.” Never before had so many people determined their identity in such a thin and artificial way.
White children born after the war were the first in history to grow up in such relative affluence, the first to be raised under Dr. Spock’s permissive ideas, the first to expect an extended adolescence in college — and the first to deeply question the values and motives of their parents.
Circumstances were preparing the ground for the emergence of the youth culture. The early 1950s witnessed a convergence of unique factors, starting with the baby boom. From 1947 until 1980, the population of thirteen to thirty-year-olds would increase every year. By 1956, thirteen million teens would be spending $7 billion/year. They had no memory of the Depression or the war. But they were aware that nuclear war might instantly negate everything, and they had no instinct to save money. At a deeper level, however, their bodies were about to explode in the universal, if inchoate, cry for initiation. By 1960, three-quarters of movie audiences would be teenagers, prompting a Hollywood executive to complain, “It’s getting so show business is one big puberty rite.”
Rural America’s population declined steeply. Between 1945 and 1970, 25 million people would leave the farms forever. Advertising and cheap mortgages (for whites) made possible by the G.I. Bill convinced everyone that cars were a necessity. But the new mobility contributed to the breakdown of urban, ethnic communities. In previous migrations, large, multi-generational groups had moved together, following two persistent themes of American myth: cities were no good; and one could always make a new start by settling the wilderness. Indeed, by the mid-1950s, city life in the popular imagination was encapsulated by Ralph Kramden’s cramped apartment in The Honeymooners TV show. Meanwhile, Father Knows Best, Ozzie And Harriet, etc, presented suburbia as the Promised Land.
Suburban whites attempted to live within cocoons of unexamined privilege, rarely encountering an African- or Mexican-American except as a servant. This isolation perpetuated racist beliefs and kept white cultural norms invisible. In 1963, two out of three whites would tell pollsters that blacks were treated equally, and ninety percent believed that black children had equal educational opportunity.
But this escape from the inner cities had a different intention and a different result. Countless young couples left the ethnic accents and recipes of their parents behind. They were no longer “hyphenated Americans,” but simply Americans. As this happened, a generation of children grew up missing the experience of living with extended families. They lost connection to elders, who were being exiled to retirement communities or nursing homes. The nuclear family was essentially little more than an isolated consuming unit. And yet the new emphasis on individualism was negated by relentless advertising pressure that channeled most personal choices toward conformism.
“Organization men” gave their allegiance to corporations and uprooted their families from one suburb to another whenever their jobs changed. William Whyte wrote that they “left home spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life.” IBM executives would joke that the initials of their company stood for “I’ve been moved.”
Something else was disappearing – the oral tradition. Previous generations had learned their myths (and their history, which were often the same thing) by listening repeatedly to storytellers. And as the unmediated, oral transmission of culture was dying out, technology was making it easier for white youths to encounter the cultural creations of the Other. By 1955, three-quarters of households would have TV. Sales of transistor radios would rise from 100,000 units in 1955 to 5,000,000 by the end of 1958. By 1960, American companies would sell ten million portable record players a year.
As for their parents, the images in their heads had been delivered in two main ways: over the radio, into their private living rooms (at least radio allowed them to imagine); or from watching movies, the one experience that most Americans now had in common. Movies, writes Ventura, had “usurped the public’s interest in the arts as a whole and in literature especially”. Whereas indigenous people had participated in their entertainment, Americans (except for dancing) were passive consumers of culture. The Western mind-body split comes to its extreme in the concept of an audience. It “… has no body… all attention, all in its heads, while something on a screen or a stage enacts its body.”
Television added a new dimension; it portrayed events far away as they happened. By showing how others lived, especially the contented middle class, it raised expectations among the poor and had an immediate impact on politics. And it showed teenagers dancing. Ultimately, though, TV turned Americans into “couch potatoes.” When they were not in their cars, enjoying the freedom of the open road, they were generally at home, glued to the tube.
Soon, the tube would be on six to eight hours per day, as millions ritually asked, “What’s on tonight?” Consuming their junk-food snacks along with the myths of post-war America, they witnessed happy, white, suburban families, with either benevolent patriarchs (Robert Young) or irrelevant but lovable Dads (William Bendix). And they observed, over and over, the righteous hero confronting the Other, who appeared as commie, gangster, redskin or space alien. But all dilemmas, comic or serious, resolved themselves just before the final commercial.
Commercials. Americans came to expect regular interruptions to hear that redemption could be achieved through purchasing the latest products. The 300-year-old Puritan heritage of delayed gratification was being pushed underground, like the pagan gods themselves, not to re-emerge for thirty years. Even before the end of the war, economist Victor Lebow had pronounced without irony that the economy
…demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.
Having endured a generation of depression and war, adults were claiming their reward. But they also sacrificed something. Instead of ancestors and spirits, they worshipped entertainers, athletes and name brands. Remnants of ancient clan competition still existed, but now it was between Ford and Chevy, Budweiser and Miller or Cheer and Tide. And few asked the old questions anymore: What is my purpose in this life? Whom do I serve? What do I owe to those who came before me and those who come after me?
One could certainly make a case against this last statement. Millions of Americans who had survived depression and war scrimped and saved so their children might have the material advantages they had never had themselves. Yet, when the baby boomers articulated their rebellion, they commonly lamented the commercialized, dangerous, polluted, banal and meaningless world of their parents. The fathers, especially, were simply not present. Psychologist Joseph Pleck notes that Freud and Jung had seen the father as critically important in the child’s psychological development, but now he was “a dominating figure, not by his presence, but by his absence.”
Students of myth may recognize this figure as a modern version of the ancient Greek Ouranos, as I write here:
The Titan Ouranos, first ruler of the universe, heard a prophecy that a son would overthrow him. So he pushed his children back into the body of Mother Earth. One son, Kronos, escaped and then castrated and deposed him. Fearing a similar prophecy, Kronos ate his children. His Roman equivalent Saturn eventually came to personify Father Time, which devours all things…For 4000 years, or 200 generations, Ouranos and Kronos, the original patriarchs, have been our models for two extreme patterns of fathering. Ouranos is the classic absent father: gone, drunk, uninvolved, hidden behind the newspaper, brushing off needy children with, “Ask your mother.” By contrast, Kronos is overly involved: tyrannical, judgmental, abusive. Ouranos neglects the children, but Kronos kills them with his unreasonable and unquestionable expectations.
By the mid-1960s, American youth would intuitively understand that Kronos had overthrown his father and was eating his children. But for now, Dad and his values were simply irrelevant.