2 Nov
2009
Posted in: Rants
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Why Gen-X Can’t Get Enough of the 1950s

Okay, so maybe this is from the 60s. But I would've been hot then, clearly.

Okay, so maybe this is from the 60s. But I would've been hot then, clearly.

Recently a Boomer work colleague, Matt, wondered aloud why it seemed that my age group was so into the 50s. It was, after all, no golden era of equality. It would be hard to imagine potentially less favorable circumstances in the last century for working women in particular; expected to work as hard as men for far less pay or promotional opportunities while also running a household in heels and an apron. Unless of course, you also happened to be a minority woman—lucky you.

His question followed a spate of Mad Men hallway discussions and laments over the steep prices of vintage Airstream trailers. It would be easy to brush off our fascination with the era as purely stylistic. There will always be a place for the Jacqueline Kennedy-style sheath dresses in our collective dream closets. But there is much more to it than that.

My generation was the first to be strapped into child car safety seats (“Barbaric!” my Grandma Louise decried) on our way to our accelerated preschool learning programs. We all knew we were supposed to Just Say No to Drugs and that smoking caused cancer and that sex should be safe but was normal. We had a relatively safe, politically-correct upbringing, even by today’s standards (as a group, at least). We were smugly certain we could become President.

Lest you think I'm joking about the drive-by shootings, they even made it into Family Circus (albeit just the Mom's imagination). Needless to say, NOT funny.

Lest you think I'm joking about the drive-by shootings, they even made it into Family Circus (albeit just the Mom's imagination). Needless to say, NOT funny.

The flip side of this relative childhood boon was divorce, a growing trend of tiny-world dismantling. Though common amongst our peers, the TV reruns we watched alone after school proved this was a new phenomenon. Revisiting the 50s is wonderful because it gives us a roadmap of how our parents happened to become what they became—oftentimes flinging themselves headfirst into career opportunities, out to prove that relationships could be run like a business (and, perhaps, dissolved like one).

At the same time, it also brings out in us a visceral, though unexperienced, nostalgia for times when someone was always home (even if in a heavily-martinied, unhappy state) to come home to.

Many of us are now parents ourselves, generational alchemists, mixing what we know worked for our parents with what we know worked better for our grandparents with what our hearts tell us should be right for today. Time will tell what the results will be. It’s important to point out that even as we are borrowing from past generations, we are different. If nothing else, we are choosing what roles we would like to play. And, of course, that’s not even getting into the fact that for many men, the family-centric roles they are hoping to take on may not have existed before in any generation.

I got a taste of my own Mad-Men-generation-fascination medicine a few weeks ago at my higher ed job, in an elevator with two teenagers, when one girl turned and complimented her friend on her shiny metallic necklace. The other beamed, fingering it delicately, and said, “It’s from the 80’s,” her voice warm and bright. No doubt she was imagining the 80s of Donkey Kong, Frankie Says Relax tee-shirts and Culture Club, conveniently forgetting AIDS, drive-by shootings, the Challenger explosion, Tiananmen Square, the Exxon Valdez and other not-at-all-fun 80s innovations that I’m sure have contributed to my warped cynicism and complete faith in Murphy’s Law. I shook my head at her adoration, finally feeling Matt’s age-bracketed bemusement, and then smiled.

So, what do you think?