This is one person’s recollection of mid-20th century America and reflection on how we’ve changed.
Our neighbors, Ed and Minnie, worked at Harding Glass and Dixie Cup, respectively. They, also, lived next door to us for the entire time that their kids and my brother and I were growing up. There was nothing unusual about this. The same held for all of the other neighbors and their families.
When Dad got back from Germany at the end of WWII., he got a job in sales, selling Trailmobile and Fruehoff trailors. He was transferred once and declined the second transfer, choosing to stay in one place and work as an agent for one of the trucking companies he had sold to.
The sedentary, high stress, nature of the job didn’t agree with him. He gained weight, developed borderline high blood pressure and was smoking 3 packs of Lucky Strikes a day. His doctor told him he needed exercise, weight loss and a smoke free life. He quit smoking, took a job carrying the mail (turned down rural routes for walking routes) and worked there for the next 23 years.
Mother was mostly a stay-at-home mom, but worked for a number of years as a secretary for a psychiatrist after I got to be college age.
I went to the same grade school for six years, the same junior high school for three, and spent 3 years in the same high school. I graduated high school with many of the boys and girls with whom I entered first grade.
I discovered how unusual this is now when I had a conversation with my granddaughter about which season each liked the most. She liked spring. I liked fall. She was incredulous. “Why?”
I told her that fall was when I went back to school and saw all of my friends that I hadn’t seen all summer. Her response was, “I’ve never gone to the same school two years in a row.” Somehow, I knew this, but the enormity of the statement had never really come home.
Our daughter has been a single mom struggling to make ends meet for most of our granddaughter’s life. The remainder has been spent in two marriages that didn’t work out.
I’m not making excuses for my daughter, but it seems that getting by, even for people with college degrees, has been hard for everyone for at least a decade.
The jobs that our neighbor’s had have, largely, disappeared. People don’t go to work for a company, work a career, and retire. Smart people, hardworking Americans don’t expect to work for a company for more than a few years. There was no room for promotion without switching jobs in the past decade. Now people scramble just to find a job with no chance for promotion or even raises that keep up with the cost of living.
Corporations seek to maximize profits for shareholders and executives. Executives think in terms of ways to increase share price in order to make the most money when they leave the company and exercise their stock options. The means to this end may involve making the company look profitable in the short term while ultimately working to the disadvantage of the company.
An example would be reducing labor costs to the point that the company is incapable of meeting demand in the event of a turnaround in the economy or in the businesses sector of the economy.
CEOs hire “process engineers” to come into the company and look for ways to make the company “lean”. Reducing employees, or replacing regular employees with part time or temporary employees, is often done in the name of “right sizing”. Most onerous, and unfortunately effective, is the practice of sending service departments, or manufacturing divisions to foreign countries where the labor costs are a fraction of those in North America. Those jobs never come back.
One of my friends was the purchasing agent for a large corporation. He was told to write up the plan for outsourcing his job to the Pacific Rim or India. At least the company gave him notice, but what a crappy thing to do. Following the implementation of the plan he was dismissed. He is very talented and even in this economy found another job – actually a better job – in less than a year. Most people now aren’t so lucky.
The spokesmen for large international corporations will tell you that this is the American worker’s fault. They will say that American’s are lazy. They will say that we want too much; that we aren’t willing to make concessions to industry. They will say that it is the fault of corrupt labor unions. While there may be some truth in all of those statements, they are all excuses to make ruthless, greedy people feel better about doing what they do.
Our society is unraveling. The cause however, is not homosexuality, or any of the other straw men that conservatives throw up. The reason lies in an economic model that frees corporations to operate without restraint, without honoring the social contract between industry and citizens. Two parents who hold four jobs have no time for the family. There is no time for help with homework, no time for involvement in extracurricular activities, no time for PTO meetings, there is no time for anything.
I am largely without an explanation for the lack of commitment between couples. I don’t understand why young men don’t want to be good fathers. In many cases it isn’t overwork. Many of these young men look for a casual relationship devoid of responsibility toward their partner or their children. This may be simply the result of a couple of generations of inadequate parenting.
Somehow, though, I think the decline in our societies moral standards began when we, as a people, came to view the possession of the latest gadget, even when it meant working overtime or another job, was our purpose in life. Madison Avenue did a superb job of making us mindless consumers.
At the time I was living in the same house for 15 years, everyone in our neighborhood had a vegetable garden and time to work in it. Neighbors shared things from their gardens, canning tips, ran next door to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg and expected to reciprocate. Every mother in our neighborhood helped raise every kid in the neighborhood.
This sense of community is gone. People live next door to each other, but don’t know their neighbors. They spend time in front of the television staring at some mindless reality show in the evening, and if they have a home with a yard, spend their weekends making sure they have a pure fescue lawn mown to the same length.
How did we get to the point that we think we have to have the latest version of smart phone while we shovel some preprocessed calorie rich, nutrient poor substitute for food into our kids or grandkids mouths? We have fallen victim to advertising and merchandising, borrowing money we can’t pay back in order to buy things we don’t really need, in the process becoming servants and slaves to corporations and banks.
Somehow, we have come to the point where corporate raiders are heroes, greed is regarded as good, and we have lost track of the values that made America great; honesty, hard work, and showing up for each other.
Can I connect all of the dots that led to this point? No. But, the moral drift is undeniable.