A Comparison of Social Trends of the 1950s and 1990s

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We Americans have a fondness of looking back to certain times with
bouts of nostalgia, clutching closely the burred images of better off
and more secure conditions. We seek to revive those past years, hoping
to cure all of our current societal ills. Why cannot we bring them
back? The economy was good, and the family was happy, we say. We see
1950s in the United States as the golden era for the American people,
and likewise, the late 1990s was considered as a prosperous time.
However, the former decade observed the height of the nuclear family
and low divorce rates, while the latter recorded higher rates of
marriage dissolution and nonmarital births, as well as low rates of
marriage. What was happening differently in these two decades? In
order to rationalize these trends in conditions and inequalities among
U.S. household and families, it is necessary to study the development
in economy and employment and occupational structure in the United
States. (It should be noted that the following discussion of these
social developments is primarily of the general, dominant, white,
middle-class American and does not address trends related to race or

Stephanie Coontz does just this in her book, The Way We Really Are:
Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families. She addresses the
several trends that have been misguidedly converted into the
popularized images we hold of the 1950s. Indeed, begins Coontz in her
argument, the 1950s was a decade in which “greater optimism did
exist…even among many individuals and groups who were in terrible
circumstances” (Coontz, 1997: 35). The postwar economic boom was
finally the opportune moment for individuals to build a stable family
that previous decades of depression, war, and domestic conflicts had
restricted. We see that this decade began with a considerable drop in
divorce rates and rise in marriage rates, which is often assumed as
the result of changed attitudes and values.

However, this situation cannot be only just attributed to women’s

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desire to stay at home as a non-working, devoted housewife and
mother. Rather, asserts Coontz, this trend was a response to external
forces, and specifically, a result of societal attitudes and policies,
such as unfavorable employment policies toward “non-ideal”
workers—workers with outside obligations—, that presented the woman
with few options. Also, Coontz writes, “Up through the 1960s an
adolescent girl typically had more responsibilities at home…than she
does today. While such tasks may have prepared girls for adult roles
as wives and mothers, they also held girls back from further education
or preparation for future work outside the home” (Coontz, 1997: 17).
Society’s expectations of women outside the realm of domesticity
numbered few, and women were constrained within their household
duties, a factor to the high numbers of women entering the marriage

In addition, this decade is an example of what Coontz explains as men
and women having dramatically disparate “situated social power”
(Coontz, 1997: 23), or in other words, “unequal social and economic
options (Coontz, 1997: 20) and “unequal bargaining power and social
support systems for men and women” (Coontz, 1997: 21). This was the
situation of having “unequal access to economic resources, political
power, and social status, and these social differences limit how fair
or equal a personal relationship between two individuals from
different groups can really be” (Coontz, 1997: 18). Thus, for unhappy
marriages, divorce was not a practical solution for the woman because
of her few options outside marriage. Women could not apply for loans
or credits or in the own names, for instance, and therefore
prohibiting full financial independence. Coontz sums up this trend in
the following passage:

“A lack of options outside marriage led some women to remain in
desperately unhappy unions that were often not in the best interest of
their children or themselves. Even women in happy marriages often
felt humiliated by the constant messages they received that their
whole lives had to revolve around a man” (Coontz, 1997: 44).

Furthermore, in the case of the more successful marriages, women did
not have to work to support the family, due to the decade’s economic
expansion and the generous and widespread federal assistance
programs. Poverty, though higher than today, was “less concentrated
in pockets of blight existing side-by-side with extremes of wealth,
and unlike today, it was falling rather than rising” (Coontz, 1997:
40). Thus, since only one breadwinner was needed, couples did not
experience the more recent additional stress of raising children while
working fulltime. In effect, the divorce rates fell in the 1950s not
because of a turn in the attitudes of the females, but due to the
overall setup of a booming economy and the lack of approval and
support for women entering the workforce instead of staying home.

Similarly, in the 1990s, the next decade of discussion, the phenomenon
of rising rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates, as well as
decreasing rates of marriage, can be partially attributed to shifts in
economic and employment trends that began in the 1960s and continued
through what was often considered the economic boom of the late
1990s. On the surface, the late 1990s was a “period of strong growth
for families throughout the income scale.” (Mishel, Laurence, Jared
Bernstein, and John Schmitt, 2001: 35) Mishel et al. show that while
median family income for the first half of the decade, 1989-1995,
experienced a drop of $1,572, it grew by $4,555 in the next half of
the decade, or by 2.5% per year. In addition, unemployment fell and
productivity increased (Mishel et al., 2001: 38). It was during this
same period, Coontz states, which divorce rates grew. Divorced men
and women numbered 140 per 1,000 married people; in 1950, that number
was thirty-five individuals per 1,000 married ones (Coontz, 1997:
27). Likewise, the rate of unwed motherhood increased since the end
of 1950 by a factor of 1.73, while that of married women childbearing
fell (Coontz, 1997: 29). Finally, the average of marriage for women
was nearly four years higher than in the 1950s (Coontz, 1997: 31).
Clearly, the marriage institution in the 1990s had changed since the
1950s. To explain these social trends, certain developments in the
economy and in the employment industry in the United States can be

A closer examination into the economic and employment trends of the
later 1990s reveals that behind this impression of prosperity,
inequality of family income, slower growth of wages and income, and
more time at work characterized the lives of the American population
(Mishel et al., 2001: 33). Mishel et al writes, “the upper 20% of
families received 47.2% of all income in 1999. Between 1979 and 1989,
the bottom 80% lost income share and the top 20% gained…The increase
in inequality persisted over the 1989-99 period” (Mishel et al., 2001:
51). Thus, for the general population, instead of experiencing a
growth in income during the supposed prosperity of the later 1990s,
they saw themselves struggling with relatively stagnant wages. Much
of these economic or employment trends of the 1990s, were actually a
continuation of changes that began in the late 1960s or 1970s. For
example, this was the period that saw the beginning of a tighter job
market as the baby boomers grew up, and as it was post-civil rights
and post-feminist movement, a fuller integration of groups such as
women into the labor force. Judith Stacey writes in Brave New
Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth Century

“The emergent postindustrial economy shifted employment from heavy
industries to nonunionized clerical, service, and new industrial
sectors. Employers found themselves irresistibly attracted to the
nonunionized, cheaper labor of women and thus, increasingly to that of
married women and mothers” (Stacey, 1990: 11).

In effect, real wages, which had been rising since the 1950s, started
to fall in the early 1970s, and in the 1990s had yet to recover.

Such economic pressures led to two options for a family: modifying
lifestyle or changing the structure of the family. By the mid 1970s,
family form had changed to maintain the standard of living. Most
families, Coontz quotes economists Gordon Berlin and Andrew Sum,
“‘kept their standard of living up even while real wages were falling
by doing the following four things: they postponed marriage, both
spouses entered the labor market, they had fewer children, and they
went into debt’” (Coontz, 1997: 47). Economic pressures lead to
dual-wage earner households, which soon led to stress on marital
bonds, as couples tried to balance work and family pressures. Women,
especially, had mixed feelings about balancing their traditional
duties at home with the necessity, or desire, to work. In the 1990s,
as little had changed dramatically since, these trends persisted.

This historical background can thus explain the apparent delaying and
even exiting of women from the marriage institution in the 1990s. To
begin with, in contrast to the 1950s, where women had few choices
outside the household and relied on the male’s earnings, women now had
the choice of remaining single or being a single parent and herself
generating the income. Stacey explains, “For modern marriages, unlike
their predecessors, were properly affairs not of the purse but of the
heart” (Stacey, 1990: 9). And for those who were married, the
struggle to raise family income with both people working full time
strained marital bonds, leading to higher divorce rates. The way out
of this trend, Coontz suggests, is not for individuals to adapt, but
for the employment industry to change its hours and its policies to
fit the new family structure.

Thus, while both the 1950s and the 1990s were decades of relative
economic prosperity, conditions among U.S. households and families
contrasted significantly with each other. The 1950s marked a notable
drop in the number of divorces and a rise in marriages; the 1990s, on
the other hand, saw the other polar end of more divorces and
out-of-wedlock births and fewer marriages. Instead of attributing
these trends simply to the changes of values and personal
responsibilities, analyses from sociologists Coontz, Stacey, and
Mishel et al. have shown that the embracing or shunning of the
institution of marriage and other related developments is largely a
response to the economic and employment conditions of the time
period. As Coontz noted, “Men and women have different options in our
society, outside and independent of their personal relationships”
(Coontz, 1997: 19). These options have changed and will continue to
change according to developments in economy and employment, and
ultimately as a result, will affect the features of U.S. households
and families.

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