The Fifties Weren’t The Pinnacle of Mankind

I wonder if, at middle age and thereafter, my generation will wax nostalgic about the 1980’s the same way Baby Boomers do about the 1950’s.

The near-end of the twentieth century had its perks: interesting synthesizer music, kickass films, the fall of the Berlin Wall and a Britain ruled by the iron claw of Margaret Thatcher. But at the same time it also heralded the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, no internet (not even dial-up), and nobody had thought to cancel Roseanne yet. People had an affinity for ridiculous haircuts and gigantic shoulder pads.

Overall I give the 1980’s a passing grade, but I’m in no great hurry to replicate them. I like being an adult, the Berlin Wall’s graffiti had unpardonable spelling errors, and today my cell phone is smarter than I am. The period we’re living in right now is a momentous paradigm shift right up there with the invention of the printing press or the Industrial Revolution.

My lukewarm assessment of the 80’s is not the sort of response you generally encounter from a Baby Boomer about the 50’s. I’ve met many people in both the US and the UK who are more or less convinced that all of western civilization has been in a sad, slow decline since the mid-twentieth century.

Incidentally, I have met very few older black people who share this nostalgia. It’s almost as if the 1950’s weren’t that raucously fun if you happened to be black. Another minor detail auspiciously omitted from wistful recollections is McCarthyism, wherein such vile insurgents as Charlie Chaplin were blackballed from the entertainment industry. (Although anti-communist fear is understandable given that mankind stood at the brink of nuclear annihilation throughout the period.)

The American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a “mental disorder,” yet at the same time you could smoke in the Surgeon General’s office/kitchen/car/funeral. Hair products contained beeswax or asbestos. The 1950’s had their flaws.

Perhaps the 50’s are held up as an ideal because we continue to perceive them as more of a culture than a period. When I hear “the fifties” I think of a distinct society, like the Victorians or France. When I hear “the eighties” I simply think of a unit of time. But the yearning for the 50’s isn’t really about a particular epoch or cultural achievement. It’s an understandable longing for something else: childhood.

A frequent Baby Boomer lament is “Back in the 50’s life was simpler, and we didn’t worry about [insert literally anything].” Well, no shit. You were a kid. When I asked my ten-year-old friend Cooper about the national debt, and whether we should increase taxes or cut spending, he said “Spongebob Squarepants isn’t that funny.” When I was growing up in the 1980’s I wasn’t worried about the resurgence of Walter Mondale or contracting HIV. I had parents to worry about that stuff.

Every period has pro’s and con’s. For instance, in the 16th century transit authorities were a lot less rigid about air travel, so you didn’t have to take off your shoes and go through a metal detector to ride zeppelins. You could hunt dragons without a bunch of bleeding heart liberals slapping fines on you or whinging about endangered species, and if you failed the SAT’s you could just grow an epic beard, find a gnarly stick and call yourself a wizard. But you also had persistent plagues, constant warfare and a 99% chance of being born a serf or hobbit.

From what we understand about the future, we will all get neato silver unitards and flying cars. However we’ll spend a disproportionate amount of free time fighting off crazed robots and giant mutant animals brought about by atomic power.

I am not saying that the 1950’s were bad. There were some wonderful elements to that decade, many of which we should reclaim. What I’m saying is that every period in history has both its benefits and warts, and I find it bizarre that an entire generation has for the most part decided that goofy black-and-white sitcoms are no less accurate than documentaries.

It’s important to remember that in future elections. We can’t return to something that never existed.

Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.


  • Jim
    March 23, 2012 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    The Nostalgia factor is propelling Santorum. Great article.

  • Whiskey Caucus
    March 23, 2012 - 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Drinking at work in the 50’s was acceptable. We want our cake damnit!

  • March 24, 2012 - 4:16 am | Permalink

    Sigh… I miss the fifties, even though I wasn’t born for another three decades. How can that be? Oh wait…

  • TJ
    March 27, 2012 - 3:58 am | Permalink

    To quote xkcd: In America, tradition is anything that has happened to a Baby Boomer twice.

  • Steve
    May 13, 2013 - 9:20 am | Permalink

    The 50s were a much better time than today, a much more peaceful time

  • Steve
    May 13, 2013 - 9:24 am | Permalink

    In the 50s kids fought with their fists, not with guns and knives. You could play outside in your neighborhood (and even miles away from your neighborhood) and your parents never feared that you would be hurt, kidnapped or killed by someone. The morality of most people was much higher than today’s “anything goes” society. I wish my kids and grandkids could have experience that simple, much happier time.