Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What: David Halberstam, The Fifties (Random House, 1993).

Why: A skillfully drawn portrait of the creation of the world we now inhabit and the society we have, for better or worse, left behind.

The state of America’s middle class is (among many other “interesting” issues) one of the themes consistently arising out of this year’s unconventional presidential campaign. Depending on the candidate, we are given to believe that the middle class is resentful about its shrinking piece of the pie, is angry about being forced to bear more than its share of society’s burdens, or perhaps both. Some argue, with some justification, the middle class is in fact shrinking, losing members as prosperity wanes or is more selectively allocated.

Leaving aside the question of how we define middle class (which is itself something of a contentious issue), this hand-wringing often harkens back, sooner or later, to the good old days. Those of us whose parents formed the Greatest Generation know that this is code for the 1950s, which David Halberstam ably chronicled in his lengthy but lively and readable book, The Fifties.

I was born during this decade, but—the truth be told—I don’t remember it. But Halberstam’s observations, in many ways, ring true: In a decade that featured the creation of fast food franchises and the introduction of mass marketing, the major social trends concerned “the burgeoning middle class,” consisting of young people who “opted for material well-being, particularly if it came with some form of guaranteed employment.” A generation that had lived through the twin scourges of economic depression and world war was not necessarily interested in setting the world afire the way that some of today’s tech entrepreneurs are. 

Yet it was the changes wrought by these scourges that played the largest part in forming this middle class. It didn’t hurt that the G. I. Bill brought access to low-interest mortgages and underwritten college educations to millions of American veterans who otherwise might not have enjoyed either home ownership or a higher education. For these Americans, “security meant a good white-collar job with a large, benevolent company, getting married, having children, and buying a house in the suburbs” (like a scene right out of The Wonder Years).

The world is a very different place now, in many ways. Halberstam’s The Fifties merely reminds us how much it has changed.

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