When I was a young student of American history and American popular culture, the 1950s were described as a time of conformity. The 1950 sociological analysis The Lonely Crowd and the 1953 novel The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit described a numbing popular culture that valued consumerism and going along with the majority point of view. It was the McCarthy era and the start of the cold war. Middle class women were pushed out of the workforce and into traditional roles as wives and mothers, and toxic masculinity was the norm for boys and men.
This understanding of the 1950s is of course more of a caricature than reality, but it has lived with me for decades as a kind of historian’s shorthand in my head: “Roaring ‘20s, Great Depression, WWII, Age of Conformity, The Sixties.” The pandemic of 2020 has led me to rethink my understanding of the 1950s, and the Four Question Method has shaped my thinking.
THE 1950s AND QUESTION TWO: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
I started thinking about the 1950s because I was thinking about what it’s going to be like for us when the pandemic is over. We will have been through a trauma, both as individuals who have lost family members, jobs, apartments and the like, and as a society that has seen economic and social disruption on a massive scale. I was wondering if maybe we’ll all be more cautious when this is over: Will we save more money? Advise our children to take the safe and secure job? Put off purchases that require larger loans? And that got me thinking about my “Age of Conformity” shorthand. Maybe people in the 1950s were more conformist because they had a visceral knowledge that bad things happen. They knew first hand that sometimes very bad things happen, like depressions in which people starve and wars in which civilians are slaughtered. Were young people being told to play it safe because their parents had been through trauma and didn’t want their children to risk experiencing the same thing? It’s easy to advise a child to “find your own path” if you’re confident that most paths lead to good places. What if you’re not at all confident of that? What if you invested your life savings in a restaurant that opened in February of 2020? Would that change the way you see risk?
THE 1950s AND QUESTION THREE: WHY THEN AND THERE?
To check my theory about what people were thinking in the 1950s I’d have to read the sorts of sources that get me into individuals’ heads: diaries, letters, memoirs and the like. But I could also test my “social trauma leads to social conformity” hypothesis using Question Three methodology. Did we see similar social conformity after the Civil War? After the economic crises of the 1890s? In order to make these comparisons I’d need to establish some standards for measuring social trauma and social conformity, then I’d have to measure to see if I’ve identified a recurring phenomenon or not. Under what conditions does social trauma lead to social conformity? When we phrase the question that way we can immediately see that an alternative hypothesis seems plausible: perhaps social traume tends to lead to social upheaval instead. After all, the “Roaring ‘20s” followed World War One and the flu pandemic of 1918-19. Maybe my hypothesis about the reasons for 1950s conformity is entirely wrong – or maybe if I developed good measurements and applied them faithfully I would find that the “Roaring 20s” were not so roaring, and/or the “Age of Conformity” was not so conformist. No matter what, I’d have a better understanding of the country’s past than my historian’s shorthand implies.
THE 1950s AND QUESTION FOUR: WHAT DO WE THINK ABOUT THAT?
“The Age of Conformity” is a pejorative label. I imagine that for most of us who came of age after the dramatic changes that we summarize as “The ‘60s,” the 1950s are easy to look down on: Leave It To Beaver, Ike’s golfing, Levittowns, and so on. I find myself much more sympathetic to the people who called out that world’s hypocrisy, especially on matters of race, than to the people who built and celebrated that world. But the pandemic has changed my thinking a little bit. After this is over, what do I think I’m going to want for myself and my children? A secure job, a house or apartment that won’t disappear with one economic crisis, social stability. I’m a little more sympathetic to the depression-scarred WWII vet who doesn’t want to rock the boat at the office so he can keep making payments on his Levittown cottage on Long Island.
Of course the structural problem with the society built by those depression-scarred WWII veterans was that it was designed so that only white people could address their anxieties. Levittown was segregated, black women often worked raising white people’s children because their husbands’ wages were depressed by racism, and “social stability” was created through Jim Crow laws and customs. While the pandemic makes me a bit more sympathetic to the people who made the 1950s an age of conformity, the murder of George Floyd makes me a lot more sympathetic to those who made the 1960s a time of great tumult.