- Historic Sites
The 50 Biggest Changes In The Last 50 Years
June/July 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 3
In 1950 about a million overseas phone calls originated in the United States. In 2001 the number was a staggering 6.27 billion. In 1954 only radiotelephony, with a very limited capacity, was available. Today a cat’s cradle of undersea cables together with communications satellites provides nearly limitless capacity. In 1954 you needed a reservation to make an overseas phone call, and it would likely have cost a significant percentage of your weekly wage. Now it often costs less to call London than it did to make a local call 30 years ago. When you dial an 800 number, you may well find yourself talking—absolutely free—to someone in India.
Even domestically the increase in communications has been profound. You cannot walk down a city street, or even a supermarket aisle, without seeing people talking away on cell phones. Airports are full of folks working on laptop computers, connected wirelessly to their companies’ computer networks, while they wait for their flights. The increase in executive efficiency as a result has been enormous (and the ability to “get away from the office” much diminished).
Many Americans in 1954 still handled their financial affairs largely in cash. They received their pay in cash, and they paid their bills in cash. The reforms of the New Deal had ended the fear of banks’ collapsing, so many families maintained savings accounts to safeguard their rainy-day funds, but far fewer had checking accounts or ready access to bank credit.
In 1951 a Long Island banker named William Boyle invented the credit card. It was a classic capitalist win-win-win situation: Credit cards allowed merchants to avoid the expense and risk of maintaining charge accounts; they gave banks handsome profits on unpaid balances; and they spread credit, formerly reserved largely to the affluent, to a whole new class of consumers. By the 1960s credit cards were common. Today they are ubiquitous, with 1.2 billion in use in the United States in 2002 by 190 million cardholders. Thanks to credit cards—and their latter-day descendants debit cards—cash is rapidly disappearing from American retailing.
Other parts of our economy’s financial sector have also grown beyond all expectations in the last 50 years. In 1954 the Dow Jones Industrial Average finally topped its 1929 high of 381.17. Today the Dow Jones stands more than 26 times higher than it did then. In 1954 there were 115 mutual funds in operation in this country, with investments worth $6.1 billion. In 2002 the number was more than 10,000 mutual funds controlling $7 trillion in capital. The percentage of people owning stocks and mutual funds has grown explosively as well, with over half the population directly holding financial securities. Many more have interests in pension funds.
Capitalism has become truly democratic in the last 50 years, and it is getting more so every day.
In 1954 more than a third of all American workers belonged to unions, mostly of the old-fashioned blue-collar variety. In 2002 only about 14 percent did. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, for nearly half of today’s union members are government employees, such as teachers and hospital workers, virtually none of whom were unionized in 1954.
Meanwhile, the number of strikes has greatly diminished. In 1960 there were 222 work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers, with 13,260,000 workdays lost. In 2002 there were only 9 such strikes, with 660,000 lost workdays, although the size of the American work force has doubled in the last 50 years.
Part of the reason for the decline of the labor movement is the shift from manufacturing to services as the major source of jobs in the American economy. The United States has not stopped making things (total manufacturing output grew by more than a third between 1990 and 2001) but is becoming ever more efficient at it, thanks to the rapidly increasing use of computers in the process.
The recent history of manufacturing in this country is very similar to the longer history of agriculture. Farm production has steadily increased, while the percentage of the population living on farms has steadily declined, as has the percentage of GDP that is derived from agriculture. That trend did not stop in the last 50 years; it accelerated.
In 1954, 11.6 percent of the population lived on farms. Today less than 2 percent does. The amount of land devoted to agriculture has also declined, from 1.16 billion acres in 1954 to 941 million in 2001. In 1954, 82 million acres were planted in corn; in 2002 the number was down to 79 million. Yet corn production went from close to 3 billion bushels to 9 billion. Wheat acreage has held steady at about 60 million, but production has gone from 984 million bushels in 1954 to 1.6 billion in 2002.
In 1954 the typical American woman was a housewife. That is certainly no longer the case, with more than 60 percent of American women in the work force. Moreover, women in business are no longer confined to the steno pool by any means. (The steno pool, of course, disappeared years ago.) In 1967 Muriel Siebert became the first woman to own a seat on that ultimate male bastion the New York Stock Exchange. All major corporations now have female executives, half the Forbes 500 companies have female corporate officers, and eight have female CEOs. There is no question that these numbers will rise as talented women who started working in the last few years reach their career peaks.