This world of the early twenty-first century seems completely different from the world of fifty years ago, and for some reason yesterday, that struck me as odd. Except for the accoutrements of our lives, such as computers and clothes, why would things be different? Most people want the same things now as they wanted then — a safe world for their children to grow up in, a degree of comfort and security and happiness, a chance to succeed either in their chosen career or in their daily lives, freedom to live the best way they know how. So why is life today so different from what it used to be?
Admittedly, those were not the halcyon days people remember them as being. There was strong prejudice in certain areas in the United States, though not all people or neighborhoods or cities participated in the prejudice against blacks, woman, gays. There did seem to be restrictions against what women could accomplish, though women who wanted to accomplish big things often managed to succeed anyway. But most women thought they had it good, staying at home, taking care of their husbands and children. Is it any better today when women are forced by circumstances or custom to work?
People are still basically the same, yet now married couples seem to be unable to find a way to stay together. Back then, divorce was rare, and now it is all too common. The number of single parent homes are increasing. Children are being shuffled between parents. Some children have too few parents, and some have too many. You’d think that with the fluidity of life today that people would be more accepting of each other, but our society is still pigeonholing both men and women, forcing them into roles they might not want. We seem to always be categorizing people, foisting labels on them, making them conform to fashionable ideas and attitudes. And we seem to be even more polarized now than ever before, whether religion or politics, with less tolerance for opposing points of view.
Looking back on those long ago days of the mid-twentieth century, it seems a completely different world. Children played in the streets, walked to and from school, rode their bikes to distant neighborhoods, ran errands for their mothers, walked to the park for pick-up games. Were things safer then? Or was it simply that people were not bombarded with images of peril on TV and the internet and so did not know how unsafe they were? No matter how graphic newspaper stories and photos were, no matter how detailed radio news became, they were still static words and images, without the horror that today is thrust into our lives in full color, making us fearful for our safety.
If things were safer then, and it isn’t an illusion of nostalgia, then why were things safer? As I mentioned, people want now what they wanted then. Is it simply that there are more people in the world? Is it that the neighborhood schools have been consolidated into district schools so that the neighborhood is no longer a separate entity? Is it that we move more frequently now so we ever gets to know our neighbors? Are we less trusting, perhaps, and if so, why? Does it make a difference that someone isn’t waiting at home when kids get home from school? Or maybe it’s that no one is home during the day and so whole neighborhoods are deserted, giving us a feeling of being ungrounded? Is it that two salaries or two jobs are necessary to maintain the same level of comfort that one mediocre salary could handle back then? If so, why is that? Is it simply inflation (or perhaps a conspiracy to kill the middle class as some people believe) or is it that more things are necessary now, that a comfortable life today needs more equipment than a comfortable life fifty years ago?
There used to be one car per family, one television, one telephone. (Some families had two of each, of course, but most only had one.) Now each person in each family seems to have their own mode of transportation, their own television, their own telephone, their own computer. Games were simple back then, too — a bat and ball, board games, jigsaw puzzles — and you needed someone to play with. Now expensive game consoles take the place of neighborhood companions. After school activities seem more structured now, though family life seems less structured — families eating meals together at a set time used to be the norm and now is a special occasion. But then, families themselves are different.
I don’t know if any of this is important or if it means anything. Whatever once was no longer exists, and we can only live in the world of today, but it does seem strange to me that despite people’s goals remaining the same, the world has changed so much.
Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+