Conformity In The 1950s

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Following World War II, the United States entered into an era of prosperity and emerged as one of the world’s leading industrial powers as the U.S turned away from its traditional policies of isolationism and toward increased international involvement. The revolutionary growth of the U.S. economy resulted in millions of office and factory workers being raised into a growing middle class that moved to the suburbs and embraced consumer goods. The impact of postwar economic, demographic, and technological changes on American culture was a surge in population growth, an expanding consumer culture, and the arrival of a homogeneous mass culture through suburbanization . For example, through the postwar economic boom and technological advancement, the new medium of television transformed American homes and values to fit into conformity. Many comedies on a TV’s network presented an idealized image of white suburban family life, also known as the nuclear family, on shows like “Leave It to Beaver”. Families lived in identical subdivision houses, drove the same model of car, wore similar clothing, and lived similar lifestyles. There was extremely little individuality. However, a popular group of Americans poets and writers called the Beats disdained middle-class materialism and rebelled against mass culture conformity through glorifying spontaneity, drug use, and spirituality.

At the end of World War II in 1945, a significant increase occurred in U.S birth rates. From 1945-1960, births per 1,000 population stayed above 20 every year. These children were known as the baby boomers. As the largest generation in American history during the time, the baby boomers had an immense effect on popular culture because of their tremendous numbers. Marketers and businesses distinguished the baby boomers as a target demographic and advertised products and entertainment suited to their needs and interests. (U.S Birth Rate: 1940-1980).

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A song by Melvina Reynolds titled “Little Boxes” mocked the conformist lifestyle pervading American culture. As increased educational levels, home ownership, and higher wages allowed more Americans to become members of a consumer culture, many Americans valued homogeneity and the idea of fitting in by buying the latest trends and upholding stereotypes. Reynolds states that the American family all looks the same and live in generic suburban neighborhoods. (Little Boxes).

The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 stimulated the economy and expanded the middle-class. The act financed education for veterans, making middle-class status more accessible than before. In cities and suburbs, the Veterans Administration, which helped former soldiers purchase new homes, lit a building boom that created jobs in the construction industry and fueled consumer spending in home appliances and automobiles. Both policies expanded the mass-consumption-oriented middle class. (The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944).

Suburban living was most agreeable in the Sunbelt (the southern and southwestern states), where taxes were low, the climate was mild, and space allowed for sprawling subdivisions. In states like California, Texas, and Florida, they gained a population of more than 1,000,000 between 1970-1980. As suburbs grew, businesses were prompted to move into the new areas and large shopping centers that contained a considerable variety of stores changed consumer patterns.Through World War II, downtowns had prevailed as the center of retail sales and restaurant dining with their department stores, eateries, and low-cost diners. As suburbanites abandoned big-city centers in the 1950s, entrepreneurs designed two new commercial forms: the shopping mall and the fast-food restaurant. Suburban shopping centers brought the market to the people instead of people to the market. (Post War Internal Migration to Sun Belt and West Coast).

However, post war prosperity did not extend to everyone. Many Americans still continued to live in poverty and slum houses, especially immigrants and African Americans. Mechanization and technological advancements were eliminating thousands of unskilled and semiskilled jobs. Without opportunity, and faced with racism, segregation, and low-paying wages, many of them faced their way to being an American underclass, even as new suburbs emerged outside cities to accommodate the new middle class.    


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