The 50s

In the comments on Tuesday’s post, Kai Jones asked what’s the basis for comparison for the claim that risk has increased over time.  The answer is, of course, that mythical era, the 1950s.

At a meeting I went to last week, Brink Lindsey from the Cato Institute had a great line — "The right and left share this strange nostalgia for the 1950s.  The left wants to go to work there, and the right wants to go home there."  Ouch and touche.

Dave s commented that the rigid family structure of the 1950s was itself a form of risk for women, due to "the uncertainty and absolute dependence on men’s behavior choices of women in the suburbs."  I think there’s certainly some truth to that, although there’s a complicated set of interactions:

  • Women who divorced suffered much more severe financial consequences in the 1950s than they do today because of both massive discrimination in employment against women and underinvestment in education.  BUT, far fewer women experienced divorce.  Women were more likely to suffer financially due to the death, disability, or indolence of their husbands than from divorce.  (See, for a case study, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.)  Germany today is probably the place that most resembles America of the 1950s in this regard.
  • Women who divorce today are far less likely to be absolutely destitute as a result.  Compared to never-married mothers, divorced mothers are far more educated, and have more employment history.  But divorced women still experience major drops in their standard of living.  And, especially if they try to minimize disruption for their kids by staying in the same house/schools, they’re quite likely to wind up in bankruptcy.
  • What’s new is that men also suffer significant financial hits from divorce.  Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz have shown that as wives contribute an increasing share of family incomes, divorcing (and widowed) men are more likely to be downwardly mobile due to divorce.

The economics of the 1950s clearly contributed to the social structure in significant ways.  Men married far younger than in the past, mostly because they could afford to support families at earlier ages.  And large numbers of families could afford to live on the income of one breadwinner for one of the first times in history (while married white mothers didn’t work very much outside the home in the early 20th century, families often relied on the labor of older children).  I’m not seeing an argument for causality in the other direction, but I’m sure someone could come up with one.

4 Responses to “The 50s”

  1. Kai Jones Says:

    I thought it was the 50s, and I sniggered at the line about the left wanting to work there etc.
    The thing is, my life is so much better now that it would have been in the 50s. And that’s leaving out television, DVDs, TIVO, computers, the Internet, and some of the meds I take to control chronic conditions. I mean, how many single or divorced women got mortgages on their own salaries and credit history in the 50s? How many were allowed to get jobs without answering awkward questions about whether they were going to get married and leave work, or have babies ditto?
    My grandmother was widowed in 1943, and had to make her own way in the world with 3 kids under age 5. She had a much harder life than I did.

  2. SamChevre Says:

    Noted forms of causality in the other direction (from social structures to economics).
    The clearest, and probably most important, is that the social pressure for wives not to work contributed to making men’s wage sufficient to support a family, in two ways:
    Basic econ 101–less competition means higher prices.
    And, at least as importantly–two-income familes bid up prices for all families for goods in limited supply, like housing and social status.
    Another, important in limited areas: the lack of options for women functioned as a subsidy for the areas where they could work. For example, school-teaching had women who were, on average, much higher achievers than today, at lower wages than today–because it was one of the very few options for those women. Harry B had a good post on Crooked Timber on this subject a few months ago.

  3. Kai Jones Says:

    There’s a good response at Asymmetrical Information.

  4. dave s Says:

    Coyote Blog (Lindsay’s roommate from college! the world is connected) quotes him heavily in this post:

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