It’s possible to find people on both sides of the political aisle who wax nostalgic for the 1950s. Many on the right wish for a return to the country’s conservative mores and nationalist attitudes, while some on the left pine for the era’s high tax rates, strong unions and lower inequality. But despite the period’s rapid economic growth, few of those who long for a return to the 1950s would actually want to live in those times. For all the rose-tinted sentimentality, standards of living were markedly lower in the 1950s than they are today, and the system was riddled with vast injustice and inequality.
Women and minorities are less likely to have a wistful view of the 1950s, and with good reason. Segregation was enshrined in law in much of the U.S., and de facto segregation was in force even in northern cities. Black Americans, crowded into ghettos, were excluded from economic opportunity by pervasive racism, and suffered horrendously. Even at the end of the decade, more than half of black Americans lived below the poverty line.
Women, meanwhile, were forced into a narrow set of occupations, and few had the option of pursuing fulfilling careers. This did not mean, however, that a single male breadwinner was always able to provide for an entire family. About a third of women worked in the 1950s, showing that many families needed a second income even if it defied the gender roles of the day.
For women who didn’t work, keeping house was no picnic. Dishwashers were almost unheard of in the 1950s, few families had a clothes dryer and fewer than half had a washing machine.
But even beyond the pervasive racism and sexism, the 1950s wasn’t a time of ease and plenty compared to the present day. For example, by the end of the decade, even after all of that robust 1950s growth, the white poverty rate was still 18.1 percent, more than double that of the mid-1970s.
Nor did those above the poverty line enjoy the material plenty of later decades. Much of the nation’s housing stock in the era was small and cramped. The average floor area of a new single-family home in 1950 was only 983 square feet, just a bit bigger than the average one-bedroom apartment today.
To make matters worse, households were considerably larger in the 1950s, meaning that big families often had to squeeze into those tight living spaces. Those houses also lacked many of the things that make modern homes comfortable and convenient — not just dishwashers and clothes dryers, but air conditioning, color TVs and in many cases washing machines.
And those who did work had to work significantly more hours a year. Those jobs were often difficult and dangerous. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn’t created until 1971. As recently as 1970, the rate of workplace injury was several times higher than now, and that number was undoubtedly even higher in the 1950s. Pining for those good old factory jobs is common among those who have never had to stand next to a blast furnace or work on an unautomated assembly line for eight hours a day.
Outside of work, the environment was in much worse shape than today. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, and pollution of both air and water was horrible. The smog in Pittsburgh in the 1950s blotted out the sun. In 1952, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Life expectancy at the end of the 1950s was only 70 years, compared to more than 78 today.
So life in the 1950s, though much better than what came before, wasn’t comparable to what Americans enjoyed even two decades later. In that space of time, much changed because of regulations and policies that reduced or outlawed racial and gender discrimination, while a host of government programs lowered poverty rates and cleaned up the environment.
But on top of these policy changes, the nation benefited from rapid economic growth both in the 1950s and in the decades after. Improved production techniques and the invention of new consumer products meant that there was much more wealth to go around by the 1970s than in the 1950s. Strong unions and government programs helped spread that wealth, but growth is what created it.
So the 1950s don’t deserve much of the nostalgia they receive. Though the decade has some lessons for how to make the U.S. economy more equal today with stronger unions and better financial regulation, it wasn’t an era of great equality overall. And though it was a time of huge progress and hope, the point of progress and hope is that things get better later. And by most objective measures, they are much better now than they were then.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University.