If we had to sum up the difference between life in the 60s and life today in one word... it would be choice. Today there are more and more varieties of most everything. Sometimes that is an advantage, sometimes not.
But we did not plan our evenings and weekends around what was on television. Most television stations went off the air at 1 or 2 in the morning.
The technology of television is far better today than in the 60s. Few people had color televisions; few programs were broadcast in color. But the writing and character development were generally far superior to that of what is on television today. In the 60s, you had to be a good actor to get on television. Today, you just have to be different... and lucky; often no acting skills are required. (Evidence: “The Drew Carey Show” – mildly funny, but terribly shallow. More evidence: all of the so-called “reality shows” on television. There is no writing involved there at all... and even less acting ability.)
There were no CDs, no tape cassettes, and very little FM-radio. Rock groups usually released 8-10 new songs every year on 45 RPM records (97 cents, plus 3 cents tax). Most teens listened to the same 300-400 new songs each year. Once a year or so, groups released an album on a 33 1/3 RPM record. There were no lewd lyrics, no hate music, no warning labels. Usually, the lyrics made sense and lifted our spirits.
Most families had one or two television sets, one or two telephones, and one or two cars. Few kids got a car when they turned 16.
The big-three auto manufacturers (Ford, GM and Chrysler) owned the car market. Foreign-made cars accounted for only a small fraction of U.S. auto sales. The U.S. auto companies introduced new models every September. Most of the changes involved style and appearance. Most people bought a new car every 3-4 years; cars began to fall apart after about 5 years. The critics believed that Detroit planned it that way; they called that “planned obsolescence.” Foreign imports in the 70s proved that the critics were right. Cars were expensive; but nobody leased a car. Car buying was a serious thing. We cared about the final price of a car back then, not the monthly payment. (From a money standpoint, leasing a car makes absolutely no sense. But try convincing the typical yuppie that.)
Chrysler marketed heavily to the elite who wanted to stand out; Ford and GM cars were for the working class, with a few exceptions. If you wanted to show off, you probably had a GM Cadillac or a Mercury (Ford) Lincoln. The only true sports car was the Chevy Corvette. The poor man's Corvette was the Ford Mustang, which was released in the mid 60s. It was a great car! GM's sporty offerings for the middle class in the mid 60s included the Pontiac Firebird and the Chevy Camaro. Ford offered the Cougar.
Volvo had a small presence in the U.S. in the 60s. Volvos were expensive but sturdy cars. My gym teacher had a Citroen – a European car. I have no idea how he got service for it. Some people owned a British Triumph TR6, a small, sporty car. (There are still some of them around today; they are neat cars – but very small!)
American carmakers tried to appeal to the more thrifty car buyer with cars like the Chevy Corvair. But most of them were poorly built. Henry Ford believed that “small cars make small profits.” His philosophy continued long after his death. Trucks were for construction workers and farmers.
Foreign imports flooded the market in the 70s, for better or worse. The gas shortage in the 70s caused consumers to seek out more fuel efficient (read: smaller) cars. Japan had been making small cars for decades. Detroit had ignored that part of the market. But by 1973, Detroit figured that small profits were better than no profits, and they jumped onto the bandwagon and built smaller, more fuel efficient cars.
Taking a plane to get somewhere was rare. Plane flights were very expensive! I remember walking through an airplane terminal in the 60s and seeing small booths where someone was selling life insurance -- “good for one flight only.” Really! So, while the airlines were trying to convince us that airline travel was safe, there was a serious doubt in someone’s mind about whether we would make it. But, it was generally the price of the ticket that kept most of us on the ground.
Most homes, even those in the south, did not have air conditioning; neither did most cars. In the summer, people opened their windows at home and used large fans; they sat and entertained on screened-in porches; they drove with the windows open. As you might expect, far fewer people lived in California and Florida. We used less than half the amount of energy (per person) than we do today.
There was no Federal Express or overnight mail or package delivery. A first class letter might take up to 10 days to reach its destination. Normal mail travelled by truck. An air-mail stamp cost extra.
Teachers were not paid any more than they are today, but they were respected enormously. Teaching was considered a most honorable profession. Nobody questioned the authority of teachers – not the kids, not the parents. And nobody thought of taking a grievance against a teacher to court.
In most families, the man was the “bread winner”; most mothers did not work outside the home in a fulltime job (though they had plenty of work to do). They did not have to work outside the home. They did not have to primarily for two reasons: 1) We did not need four televisions, three cars, a summer timeshare condo on the shore and 100 TV channels. 2) The government took only about 15% of our income; today it takes about 40%. So today families have to work much longer for the same take-home income, and much, much longer to be able to afford 100 channels and 1500 cell phone minutes per month.
Our air, rivers, and open spaces were far more polluted. Some people threw trash out the windows of their cars or dropped it on the ground. In some matters, we were very irresponsible.
But there were no plastic bags. Taking out the trash was an ugly chore.
Generally, people were much more civil. There were virtually no drive-by shootings or guns in schools. You knew your neighbors and respected them. The language on television was much more tame. The level of public discourse was much more elevated than it is today.
People kept their private lives private; they had no desire to broadcast their bad behavior on television. We had shame in the 60s; we have little sense of shame today... about anything. Nobody talked about self-esteem in the 60s.
Few people complained about being a victim. Few people ever thought of suing somebody or some company to get what they thought they deserved.
What We Ate
I never heard the term “vegetarian” when I was growing up, though I guess they were out there. There were far fewer foods available. There was not a fast-food restaurant on every street corner. The menu at McDonald’s consisted about about six items. McDonald’s opened at about 10:30 or 11 a.m. There was no fast-food breakfast.
There were 30 brands of cereal at the grocery store, not 300. There were no microwave ovens. Hamburgers, fries and hot dogs were king. As a foreign dish, a lot of people ate ravioli – Chef Boyardee Ravioli. Milk was good for you. Coke and Pepsi were a treat. There were no diet sodas. Generally, food portions were much smaller. Soft drinks came in 6-ounce, glass bottles that you had to return to the store. A quarter-pound burger was huge – and rare. There were no super-size fries or big-gulp soft drinks.
As a side dish, soup was big back then. Campbells and Heinz – Heinz 57. Easy to make, cheap, and mmm-mmmm, good!
My favorite candy bar was the Clark Bar. But Baby Ruth, Milky Way, Snickers, Three Musketeers and PayDay were also popular. So was the standard Hershey Bar – plain or with nuts. “Sometimes you feel like a nut” – Peter Paul Almond Joy and Peter Paul Mounds candy bars. As with most foods, the candy bars were much smaller; but they cost a nickel back then. At the movies we had popcorn, Cokes and Milk Duds. We chewed a lot of gum back then – bubble gum, too; big wads of bubble gum.
Our main snack food was potato chips. We also ate Fritos; lottsa’ Fritos! And of course, pizza. Oh, and yes, Oreo cookies. Whew! I think they were smaller then, but we devoured them. Graham crackers were big back then; but I never liked them.
Most retail stores closed at 6 p.m. on weekdays and were not open at all on Sundays. 7/11 got its name and acquired fame because it opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 11 p.m. In the mid 60s, no other major store did that; even then, 7/11 stores were few and far between. Many retail stores were clustered in what we called shopping centers, not covered, elegant malls.
There were no self-serve gas stations. When you pulled up to the pump, your car ran over a rubber hose that signaled the gas station attendant, who, in addition to filling your gas tank, would clean your windshield and check your radiator and oil. They were called “service stations” back then, for good reason.
On Sundays, people usually stayed close to home. We watched baseball or football games, had a picnic, played at the school grounds, or went to the local swimming pool. We did not shop on Sundays.
People took care of their families and their neighbors. Few looked to the government for what had been family responsibilities for generations. When my next-door neighbor’s house burned down, three neighbors took in the family for the entire time their house was rebuilt. No one ever thought of asking the government to help. That was our responsibility, not the government’s. (Besides, we could do it for about 10% of what it would have cost the government.)
People often were born, lived, and died in the same town. Many people lived in the same house for 20-30 years.
The divorce rate was about half of what it is today.
The illegitimacy rate in the 60s was about 3 per cent. (Today it is about 40 per cent.) Women who had children outside of marriage were scorned, not celebrated. Teenage girls who got pregnant were often sent away for the duration of their pregnancy. The baby would adopted by a carefully screened, married couple.
People who relied on welfare and other government handouts generally did so reluctantly, and tried to get back on their own as soon as they could. It was embarrassing to have to admit that you were accepting welfare.
Unemployment compensation was available back then; but few people relied on it — and not for long. Your unemployment checks stopped after about four months. You were expected to have a job by then. That was your responsibility.
When you were sick, you went to the doctor and paid the bill yourself. Medical insurance covered only major medical procedures. But far fewer medical procedures existed. People died from diseases and conditions completely curable today. Having cancer was thought of as a death sentence – for good reason: usually, it was.
Homosexuality was hardly ever mentioned. It was considered an odd abnormality, not an equivalent lifestyle.
Males over the age of 18 were subject to the military draft. Most guys recognized that they would likely have to serve military duty.
Blacks had a much tougher time; there was much unfairness, separation and discrimination. Still, despite what you have heard, most blacks succeeded in spite of adversity. Blacks represented a much smaller percentage of the U.S. population.
The language was English. When foreigners moved to the U.S., the parents may have continued to speak their native language at home; but the kids learned and spoke English. They wanted to blend into what we called “the melting pot.” They wanted to be Americans, not hyphenated-Americans. Signs and regulations and ballots were printed in one – and only one – language. (Today ballots are printed in eight languages in California.)
That’s an absurd, 21st century thing. It was unimaginable in the 60s.
There were far fewer popular sports. Baseball was the American pastime; football was way behind. Boxing was popular; and golf... less so basketball. Major league athletes did not earn huge salaries. Until the mid 60s, many major league baseball players took jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. Major league sports figures were often not paragons of virtue; but you did not hear about their shortcomings. Nobody was proud of their bad behavior.
The pace of life was slower; we did not feel that we had to do as much or do it as fast. We took much more time to do most everything. We took pleasure in the small things.
Many of us were much happier and more content. Many people under the age of 40 have no understanding of that happiness or contentment. That is their great loss.