American Malaise…?

In response to recent studies like this one and reports like this one, there has been a deluge of stories in the press about how depressed we — people generally but our kids in particular — all are.  To hear them tell it, we are a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Tweets like this one (It’s late capitalist societal collapse!) and articles like this one (It’s misogyny!) blame our anguished collective mental state on a uniquely American and uniquely modern culture of historical and ongoing oppression and victimization: America is irredeemably racist and sexist; Capitalism, not merely as a side-effect but by design, enslaves and impoverishes the many to enrich the few; those of us who haven’t already been starved by corporate greed will all be doomed to imminent extinction, anyway, through environmental collapse; not only is everything horrible it is, in fact, worse than it’s ever been — and there is no prospect for it ever getting any better!  The first study cited above explicitly links that anguish to politics — it implies that it is, specifically, the ugly modern manifestation of self-described (I would say mistakenly so…) ‘conservative’ culture and policy that is driving people to despair; and that we are, therefore, apparently one ‘bad’ election result away from a total mental collapse.

Other articles, like this one by Michelle Goldberg at The New York Times and this one by Noah Smith at Noahpinion (It’s probably the phones…), point more to changes in our social structures — in how we interact with each other and what gets punished/rewarded in the process — as the likely proximate cause of our collective angst.

Noah Smith, trying to delve deeper into that angst, also posted a recent attempt (“a highly questionable exercise”) to create a general characterization of the “2000s” in the same way that we have a general characterization of “the sixties”.  He was trying to put our current situation into a larger historical context; his conclusion was that the millennial decade could be characterized by its five major “disasters”:

    • The disputed Bush vs. Gore election, which set the stage for our current extreme of polarization and distrust of electoral machinery
    • 9/11 — obviously…
    • The Iraq War, which set the stage for much of the recent international turmoil and cost the United States a great deal of its moral authority and goodwill abroad
    • Hurricane Katrina, which set the stage for our current distrust of the efficacy and competence of government, specifically, and of institutions generally
    • The housing crash/financial crisis/Great Recession — again, obviously…

And yet he noted, despite all that, the generation that navigated the 2000’s as young adults was not particularly unhappy by all the standard measures we normally use to determine such things.

Neither, I would venture1, was my generation, the one that hit adulthood at the end of the seventies and established its sense of self and career during the Reagan era.  Nor does the evidence suggest that either the “sixties” generation, that preceded us, or the Great Depression and World War generations that preceded them, came out of their experiences as particularly and universally depressed and pessimistic.

That is, many generations of Americans have experienced various levels of national political discord, economic malaise, and cultural upheaval without creating an obvious and tragic environment of generalized despair.

As bad as you think things are, they have undoubtedly been worse in the past; and (as Steven Pinker, among many others, has been trying to tell us now for at least a decade) things have actually been improving, not falling apart: by any reasonably-applied historical standards, we live in a miraculously prosperous, healthy, and equitable world.  Moreover, we Americans have traditionally been admirably resilient, not fragile, in the face of adversity — and could be so again if we choose that path.

Mr. Smith addressed what things were like — the sequence of disasters we all endured — in the first decade of this century.  I, too, lived through those, but I observed them from the perspective of a mid-career parent of pre-teen children, not as a freshly-minted graduate trying to establish a new life.  I defer to his judgement about what its effect might have been on the developing national mood.

Recent anniversaries of pivotal events in the lives of the Baby-Boomers led to re-examinations of the 1960s in glorious (and often tedious) detail within the last few years, though those tended to emphasize the self-congratulatory triumphs more than the tragedies.

And, of course, early in the previous century, my parents’ and grandparents’ generations endured a Great Depression bracketed by two global and unlimited wars, events that arguably make our current difficulties seem somewhat trivial by comparison.  Those miseries are well-documented but are nearly beyond first-hand memory and are effectively emotionally inaccessible.

In the interest of completing the set — not to be the curmudgeon who laments about “…in my day…” or “…you don’t know how good you have it!”, but merely to remind people that this, too, shall pass — I have been thinking about what things were like in 1980, the year I graduated from high-school and began my journey into adulthood.  We were, for example, the last generation for whom the moon landing, Watergate, and Vietnam were all memories of experience rather than history learned from books.  But, we were also a generation who came of age in what was widely described, at the time, as a period of malaise…

In 1980:

    • Disco, the Leisure Suit, Bell-Bottoms, Mood Rings, and Pet Rocks were presumed to symbolize the hollowing out and debasement of American culture.  In response, the nihilism of the newly-minted “punk rock” genre represented the rising artistic sensibility of the time.
    • VCRs for the home were relatively new and uncommon (and DVDs weren’t even yet anyone’s dream), and were used primarily for recording TV shows for playback; Blockbuster Video and its ilk (never mind Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu) did not yet exist. To see a movie, you went to a theater or waited for it to show up (or, more likely, not) years later on Saturday afternoon TV.  If you wanted to see a TV show, you arranged your schedule to watch it when it was broadcast.
    • CDs were still two years in the future and MP3s weren’t even a vision.  Personalized portable music, in the form of the Walkman cassette tape player, existed but barely — it was less than a year old and still a novelty.  The LP was the king of the music industry; to listen to music, you played a record on a record player or you listened to the radio.
    • The personal computer was a relatively unknown toy and the internet was a nearly unnoticed dream of DARPA. The high-tech future – our high-tech present – was still largely unimaginable.  The “Silicon Valley” barely existed; hardly anyone had heard of “venture capital”; Steve Jobs was still just a long-haired computer enthusiast; Bill Gates was still just an unknown college dropout; and Moore’s law was speculation, not a description of reality.
    • “Online” did not exist. Searching for information meant going to the library, looking things up in the card catalog, and proceeding to the physical stacks to retrieve what you wanted — as often as not as blurry photographs on microfilm if what you were looking for was something that had been published in a newspaper or magazine more than a year ago.  Keeping up with what was going on in the world meant reading newspapers and magazines and books, or, at the least, regularly watching the nightly news on one of the three available TV networks.  Shopping meant going to the store or ordering by mail from a printed catalog (and there was no such thing as next-day delivery, or even third-day delivery).  Social interaction, including entertaining yourself with games, meant leaving the house and being with people.  Same for political interaction.  Expressing your opinion meant declaiming it in person from a soapbox in the public square or convincing some editor to print it on physical paper and distribute it to his readers.  Seeing a performance meant attending it in a theater or in a concert hall or in a club, or watching it on television; and it meant doing so at its scheduled time, at the performer’s or broadcaster’s convenience and not at yours.
    • The cell-phone existed in the lab but would not become commercially available for another 3 years; and, even then, it was merely a toy for the wealthy, costing nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars and offering a whopping 30 minutes of talking time (at 50 to 90 cents/minute) before requiring a 10 hour recharge.  It couldn’t be used to ‘text’, and it certainly wasn’t connected to any data network.  Given that, and given that the emergence of the commercial internet was more than a decade in the future, communicating with someone meant visiting them in person, talking to them on the (landline) telephone, or mailing them a letter.
    • The vision and excitement with which we had pursued the moon in the 60’s and early 70’s – and the sense of wonder and of boundless potential that pursuit inspired — had dissipated into an earthbound miasma. Space, to many, seemed neither the final frontier nor a useful resource but, rather, a wasted opportunity and a waste of wealth that could be better used here on earth.
    • Within the previous 7 years, both an American Vice President and an American President had resigned in disgrace, one step ahead of impeachment.
    • Jimmy Carter was the President, fresh from his “malaise” speech; the Reagan Revolution and the conservative resurgence – not to mention Bill Clinton (the man from Hope) and Barack Obama (the symbol of hope) – were yet to come and still unanticipated. The entire political history of our lives was Lyndon Johnson (the social chaos of the sixties, plus Vietnam), Richard Nixon (“Tricky Dick” and Watergate), Gerald Ford (an unelected placeholder, perceived as inept and out of his league), and Jimmy Carter (decent and smart, but preachy, self-righteous, and seemingly ineffective).
    • Only six years earlier, OPEC had induced an oil-shock by turning off the spigot; gasoline had been rationed and people had waited in line for hours to get it – if they could get it at all — and prices went up, by not by a few cents or a dime, and not by 10% or 20%, but by nearly 4:1 in the space of a few months.  By the end of the decade, neither prices nor the sense of energy security had yet recovered; the current angst over energy prices and supply is but a pale shadow of what was happening then.
    • The American auto industry, dominated by big iron and big labor, had been decimated by the oil shock and by the sudden appearance of high-quality and highly fuel-efficient foreign imports. Japan was ascendant and “buying up America”; the financial crises that would rock Asia were still a decade or more in the future.
    • Race relations looked different than they do now but were, by no means, either harmonious or free of resentment and conflict.  The Black Panthers are typically associated with the sixties, but they were founded only 4 years before the seventies began and remained active until two years after they ended.  It was the era not of “woke” and “white privilege”, as we think of them today, but of bellicose confrontations over desegregation, forced busing, affirmative action, and other concentrated efforts to change the culture and the economy to match the changes in law that had come little more than five years earlier.  That, to put it mildly, did not go any more smoothly than current efforts at other kinds of “systemic” reforms.
    • Inflation was running at an annual rate of about 11%, down from a high of over 12% the previous year, and had averaged almost 7% per year over the previous decade – enough to double the cost of living during those 10 years.
    • Unemployment had averaged over 7% for the previous 5 years and was rising; it would peak at over 9½% three years later before beginning a long decline to about 4% a decade and a half later.
    • That combination of inflation and unemployment (dubbed “stagflation”) violated all known economic models of the time. Although we now have some grasp of what went wrong, at the time it was unprecedented: the common wisdom was that it wasn’t supposed to be able to happen and no one seemed to know why it was happening or how to stop it.  President Ford’s sloganeering approach to fixing the problem – have everyone wear “Whip Inflation Now” (WIN) buttons – was mercifully in the past but President Carter had not significantly improved upon it in any way that was yet visible.
    • Mortgage interest rates were at almost 14% per year and had been generally rising for a decade, averaging almost 9% over that time; they would peak the following year at over 16½% before beginning a 20-year decline to their current level of about 7% (never mind the under 3% level they’ve been at for the last few years, before Fed attempts to fight the most recent burst of inflation). For reference, since the bulk of a mortgage payment at the beginning of a mortgage is interest rather than principal, that meant that a typical mortgage payment – and therefore the cost of housing – of the time was more than double what it would be for the equivalent mortgage now (and quadruple what it would have been as recently as last year).  In today’s terms, it would be akin to buying a house by putting it on your credit card.
    • Inflation-induced tax increases — “bracket creep” that had pushed low incomes into tax brackets intended for higher incomes, and exploding housing valuations that had created similarly exploding property tax bills without any corresponding increases in wages that could be used to pay for them — had generated an angry populist backlash – the “tax revolt” that resulted in California’s Prop 13 and Massachusetts’ Prop 2½ passing only a couple of years earlier.
    • The recession of the mid-seventies had massacred the stock market.  At the trough, the Dow had lost half its pre-recession value – and by the end of the decade it had barely struggled back to where it had been at the beginning.  It would be two more years before it regained its pre-recession peak and continued its march upward.
    • America’s – and at that time the world’s – worst ever nuclear power plant accident, at Three Mile Island, had happened only a year before. In hindsight, what happened was relatively minor; but, so soon afterward, there was still great fear about the ultimate damage that had been done.
    • The first ever American military defeat (by political means) had been completed embarrassingly only 5 years earlier with the fall of Saigon and the frantic helicopter evacuation of the American embassy.
    • Iranian Islamic revolutionaries had been holding 52 Americans hostage for 8 months.  Their fate – and our impotence in affecting it – had become the subject of a daily news feature with its own brand name: “America Held Hostage”.
    • The one assertive step we had attempted to resolve the Iranian standoff – a commando rescue – had ended in failure and tragedy through our own military ineptitude and political interference.
    • The Panama Canal, a symbol of American power since its construction, had been turned over to Panamanian sovereignty and control 3 years earlier in what was viewed psychologically, by many, as an American capitulation and as yet another symbol of the decline of American power and prestige.
    • The old Stalinist, Leonid Brezhnev, was still the leader of the Soviet Union; the optimism of détente was dead, as the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan and had not yet been bogged down in the quagmire it was to become; the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall was still not only unanticipated but unimaginable; our own American left, along with that of Europe, was determined to unilaterally disarm the West; and it seemed likely we would lose the Cold War through our own indifference to tyranny and an utter lack of will to continue the fight against it.
    • As a result, the prospect of a nuclear exchange with the Soviets at some time in the foreseeable future seemed not only possible but highly likely.
    • The environmental nightmare of choice was not greenhouse summer but an imminent new ice-age, perhaps accelerated a thousand-fold by Nuclear Winter.

There was, indeed, an ominous (and not unjustified) pessimism about the state of America and the world.

And, yet, the late 1980s and the 1990s — the end of the Cold War and the dot-com boom and the invention of our high-tech future, yet unknown and unimagined — loomed ahead for us.

And, though we may have felt a degree of pessimism about it all, I don’t remember any kind of mind-numbing despair.  We just got on with it…and, thereby, made that future happen.


[1]  I haven’t looked up the research — which may not even exist, since assessing the mental state of the American population was not the preoccupation then that it seems to be now…


© Copyright 2023, Augustus P. Lowell

Author’s note: Thank you to my dearest wife for a bit of judicious pruning on this one to make it tighter.  I did not take all her suggestions, so the flaws that remain are all mine…



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