1945: A Brave New World
Boomer-world did not actually begin with Woodstock.
We already had quite a before, before that – a blend of experience and received history handed down by our parents. You see, they had a personal before too … light years away from what we Boomers would enjoy, yet one which would mold our attitudes and expectations in ways we barely remember.
William L. O’Neill, professor of history emeritus at Rutgers University, who passed away last March, wrote the definitive story of our parents world in the post-war period: American High: The Years of Confidence 1945-1960 (sure, it’s available on Amazon).
O’Neill begins with a fascinating prologue detailing the economic state of the country in 1945 as WW2 ended and 12 million Americans in uniform were mustering out at a rate of a million every month.
Warning: this is not bedtime reading – its avalanche of mind-blowing data will keep your brain racing for hours. Full disclosure: we won’t venture into O’Neill’s political take on the era. Helping brands have smarter conversations in Boomer-world keeps us busy enough.
So let’s set the scene with the Google Books snapshot: Where others have viewed the fifties as an era of conformity, William O’Neill sees a confident time of buoyant expectations …
Given the circumstances in which America now found itself after fifteen harsh years of the Great Depression and wartime austerity, the economy was the top priority. O’Neill points out that addressing social justice and the environment were still far into the future. Instead, government and business focused on how to absorb the demobilizing flood of job-seekers, maintain economic momentum and avoid slipping back into the nightmare of the depression.
Fortunately, high levels of demand were already in place as veterans began coming home.
Between 1942 and 1945 over 80% of GDP was accounted for by massive wartime government spending that finally ended the depression. The unemployment rate had never once fallen below 14% from 1931 to 1940 but was now under 5%.
And with consumer goods production strictly limited, personal savings had risen from $2.6 billion in 1939 to $29.6 billion in 1945 ($400 billion in 2016 dollars). Incomes doubled in the same period.
Despite all this progress, in 1945 our parents’ everyday lives were still rooted in the pathways of the 1930s. Imagine a world where …
- There are no shopping centers or malls; folks shop “downtown” or on Main Street
- There are no personal computers or electronic calculators, but boffins use slide rules
- Almost no new cars or other consumer durable goods have been produced since 1942
- 95% of homes have a radio but fewer than 1% have a TV set; instead, 85 million people (61% of the population) go to the movies each week
- Only 38% of homes have a telephone
- The mail comes twice a day – milk, once, often still on a horse-drawn wagon
- Flying is expensive and rare: trains and buses dominate intercity/interstate travel
- 10 million people want a new car but only 200,000 are approved for production; projections for 1946 are for just 2 million
Nevertheless, with incredible pent-up spending power, full employment and the return of businesses to the consumer sector, the nation was poised for prosperity.
So, in 1945, our parents were eager for a future they once never thought possible, hopeful that shortages would be resolved and confident that the world of the magazine ads was just around the corner.
Americans were ready for the good life.
Especially ready were sweethearts coast to coast, including those 12 million returning GIs, eager for … well, let’s just call it family formation. You know, that Baby Boom thing.
Housing, home life and Googie: 1945-1960
The country faced a major housing crisis in 1945. Home building – like every other business sector – had slowed significantly throughout the 1930s, and the situation was now exacerbated by returning veterans.
Professor O’Neill tells us some ex-servicemen were living in garages, coal sheds, cellars, automobiles and – in Chicago – streetcars converted to homes. Even in 1947, he writes, the Roper Poll found 19% of all American families were doubled up, 19% more were looking for a place to live and 13% would have been looking but had given up, discouraged.
LIFE Magazine predicted that 16 million new homes would needed over the next decade and, aided by US government loan guarantee programs, the housing industry got to work. Big time.
First off, let’s sideline Bauhaus-themed mid-century modern architecture. Although many planners hoped to adapt modernist designs to prefabrication and rapid on-site assembly, these proved too daring for the public at large.
Instead, folks wanted familiar themes that borrowed just enough progressive cues to signal modernity without going overboard.
So, rather than avant-garde, our parents opted for fairly conventional new housing built by enormous firms from Southern California to Levittown, the famous/infamous community of 17,000 homes that sprouted on Long Island, NY, from 1947 to 1951. For $7,900 in 1950 – $79,000 in 2016 dollars – the Levittown buyer got a two-bedroom house equipped with a refrigerator, stove, washer, fireplace and a built-in TV (O’Neill).
Check out Bachelor In Paradise (1961) on Amazon TV for a glimpse into the shiny new suburban, school bus, mom-at-home childhoods so many Boomers remember.
Although hilltop elites in their Nuetra-Koenig-Schindler et al showplaces might groan at the “conformist sprawl” below, Mr. and Mrs. Everyfolks were actually quite adventurous inside the home when it came to furnishings, appliances and electronics.
Sure, this was mass-produced progressivism with a distinct Jetsons flavor but, wow, it was so cool. Forget the oppressive, dark old stuff at grandma’s house, this was the future.
New daring colors, materials and shapes showed up in every room in the house and a uniquely American blend of modernism and space age motifs – Googie style – moved in.
Inspired by a Los Angeles coffee shop, Googie’s (1948), and dissed by purists as low-brow, Googie-style quickly swept the country to influence diners, gas stations, motels and, eventually, public buildings.
Needless to say, our selfish little Boomer world – one of confidence and seemingly endless progress – was constantly reinforced by our parents’ flow of acquisitions.
Imagine our excitement as mom and dad constantly found ways to afford that new appliance, couch, spacey clock, transistor radio and the fabulous new car – better yet, a station wagon just for us.
And then, there was that most important home appliance of all, a television set. Nirvana.
Television: the most important home appliance
In December, 1945, a Gallup poll asked do you know what television is? Most said no. Only about 7,000 sets were in operation that year, all produced before the fledgling industry switched to the war effort in 1942. Even through the late forties, TV stations would broadcast only a few hours a day, and prime time, 8-11:00 pm, involved periods when a only a test pattern/station ID were on-screen.
But, almost overnight, television became the must-have device – the product with the fastest adoption rate in the history of American business to date. Production data from the TV Manufacturers Association was nothing less than astounding.
- 1947: 178,000
- 1948: 976,000
- 1949: 3,000,000
- 1950: 7,464,000
By 1955, almost two-thirds (65%) of US households had a television – up from 9% only five years earlier in 1950.
Fast forward to 1960 and TV penetration of US households stood at 87%. With only 32 hours of color programming a week, almost all were black-and-white sets.
But we just heard the Jones’ next door bought a cool new color TV. No fair! Mom, dad, can we, can we? We’ll see, but don’t forget we have to save for that Route 66 driving trip out to California this summer – say, how would you kids like to move to LA?
The Boomer-Plus Generation: the world’s third largest economy
Demographically, the Baby Boom boundaries have been set at 1946-1964 by the US Census Bureau. But, as Captain Barbossa might say, these are more like guidelines than actual rules.
The social Baby Boom Generation™ – you know, the one we experts pontificate about endlessly – actually began in 1940, when the depression era birth rate finally turned around and jumped 5% over 1939.
So, in 1945, there were already plenty of babies and toddlers around who would grow up in the same amazing world as those pesky-cute little siblings who began to show up in 1946.
Today, there are on the high side of 96 million American consumers in the Boomer-Plus social generation. Cast aside like forgotten stacks of old LIFE magazines in adland’s dusty attic, it includes 8 million Gen Xers who exited the 18-49 demo in 2015/16. Their unwilling exile extends the generation’s boundaries to 1940-1966.
Thanks to mom, dad and the American High years, we are still imprinted with an incurable case of the Peter Pan syndrome. Much to the chagrin of mainstream advertisers who want to write us off, we’re still here, still self-centered and louder than ever.
And as the world’s third largest economy after China and the US itself, brands would be smart to listen to us.
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