50s Nostalgia

The Economist has touched off an interesting debate over memories and values with a survey of Americans asking “which decade of the 20th century would you most like to return?”

Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong intergenerational tendency to prefer the decade of one’s youth (though that may actually come as a bit of a surprise to us Boomers, who once expected life was going to get better steadily and forever, in an extrapolation of our excitement over our favorite musician’s next album). But the outlier is the popularity of the 1950s, particularly among seniors. Kevin Drum ponders where that is coming from:

It’s the nostalgia of seniors for the 50s that intrigues me the most. I’d love to see a demographic breakdown of that. I assume that nonwhites aren’t pining away for that era, which means that white seniors must really be in love with it to produce such a high overall number. Likewise, I’d guess that women might not be too thrilled with it. If that’s true, it means that white male seniors must be nostalgic for the 50s in fantastic numbers. In one sense that’s easy to understand, but in another it’s not. If it’s just nostalgia for their youth, that’s one thing. But what about older seniors? Are they really that eager to go back to the era of Joe McCarthy, suburban lawns, and duck-and-cover drills? Apparently so.

I’d like to see a breakdown, too, for a slightly different reason. As Keith Humphreys pointed out earlier this week at Ten Miles Square, the treatment of people over the age of 65 as part of the same age cohort is highly misleading. Those with memories of the deprivations of the Great Depression and World War II have a somewhat different reason for treasuring the 1950s than those who came of age in the era of Ike ‘n’ Mamie. As the former cohort shrinks, you’d figure 50s nostalgia would as well, along with the kind of preferences that separate it from every other generation’s fondness for the days when they were young and invincible.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.