Saturday, June 3, 2017

Social Class in America, 1957

An educational film about social class in America provides a fascinating insight to the mood of the era.

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years about social class and the decline of the middle class and wealth inequality and whatnot.   We'd like to think this is all new and never discussed or noticed before.   But it is an issue that has existed in every society since the dawn of time - whether the society was capitalist, socialist, communist, or a monarchy or whatever.

Whether social mobility has changed over time is an interesting question.  The video above, from textboook publisher McGraw-Hill seems to be less an educational film than a propaganda one.   Here are your social classes and your expectations.   However, they do point to ways in which people can move above their social class.

The three protagonists, Gil (rich), Ted (middle-class) and Dave (lower class) all go to high school together.  Gil graduates and goes to an Ivy League school, mostly to make social connections.   Ted settles down to a clerical job in Gil's father's factory.  Dave goes off to be a gas jockey, dreaming someday of becoming a full-fledged auto mechanic.

Mary, Ted's sweetheart, dumps him, when she realizes he has a dead-end career as a clerk.  Ted decides to move to the "big city" to get a job in the art department of a big company and become an art director.  He succeeds and before long is rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.   He returns to his hometown, only to discover that Mary, his ex-girlfriend and social climber, is now married to rich Gil, and wants little to do with him.   Meanwhile, Ted exchanges pleasantries with Dave, as Dave gasses up his car, showing Ted photos of his third child.

It is an interesting film on a number of levels.   The premise is that while some limited vertical mobility is possible in society, don't get your hopes up.   Some say the film is dark in nature, and it may very well be.  Whoever wrote it maybe was telling their own life story (after all, the hero in the piece is an art director!).   One good piece of advice they give is that if you want to see any sort of vertical mobility, you have to leave the small town you grew up in.

As the film notes, job opportunities for Ted in his small home town are limited to the jobs his Father had, working in Gil's Dad's factory as a clerk.   Since there are few other employers in the area, Ted has few options.   And since this is before the Internet, he can't start a company, or raise funds using gofundme to start a microbrewery, if such a thing were even legal back then.    Ted's only mistake was to return to his home town, which turned out to be a depressing event.

Of course, not much is said about Mary, other than to imply that she is some sort of social-climbing slut, who latches on to the first rich man she can marry - Gil.   But given the social mores of the time, you can't blame Mary for optimizing her outcome with the limited choices available.   Even if she moved to New York City to become a commercial artist (as my Great Aunt did, back in the 1940's), she would find her vertical mobility limited, simply because she was a woman.  She would not end up art director like Ted.

And people say we haven't' made any progress since then.   And others want to "go back to the good old days!"

And in fact, a lot has changed since 1957.   If Gil were a real person and indeed took over this Father's factory sometime in the late 1960's or mid-1970's, he probably found himself in a bit of a pickle, with labor strife, underfunded pensions, and increasing competition from overseas.  The plant was probably dated, with old wartime machinery, and the products were probably outmoded as well.

By the 1980's or 1990's at the latest, Gil's factory probably went bankrupt.   This is, of course, assuming that Gil even tried to run it, instead of running it into the ground, which is often the case when a second or third generation takes over a company.   Likely, Gil sold the place to Mitt Romney, and then retired to Florida.  Meanwhile, Bain Capital does a bust-out and people like Dave lose their pension and healthcare plans.

Ted was smart to leave for New York!   Given how nonchalant Ted is about losing Mary, I have to wonder if he wasn't in fact Gay.  You know those arty types!

Again, since this movie was made, a lot has changed.   Today, Ted might be an internet Billionaire, while Gil a broken-down alcoholic or drug-addict, as happens so often to the children of the very wealthy.   The movie doesn't mention Gil's trips to re-hab.

And maybe Dave ended up buying the gas station, selling some used cars, and maybe starting a dealership.   Or even something as apparently as plebeian as a chain of self-serve carwashes.  He could be the Millionaire Next Door, and you'd never know it.  Of course, this is predicated on his keeping his pants zipped and not having 12 children like his Dad did.

Of course, today, Mary would have a lot more choices besides marrying well.   She could have a career of her own, and while opportunities are not entirely equal for women just yet, they are a helluva lot better than they were back in 1957.   Not shown is Leroy, Mary's black friend from the other side of the tracks - he went to a different high school than the three boys.   Back then, they were kept in separate communities, and Leroy's Father was even further down the social scale than Dave.  Today, he could be wedded to Mary, and it would not be a big thing.   Back then, it may have been illegal in some States!

Yes, much as changed.

"Old Money" as we used to call it, used to run the country.   People who could trace their ancestry back to the early settlers were deemed to be of higher class than the rest of us - and they often intermarried to make sure their class kept exclusive an elite, even if it meant more and more congenital defects in the children.   Today, old money is less and less of a thing.  We don't hear about the Vanderbilts or the Rockefellers (themselves "new money" at one time, believe it or not!).   We don't hear about the Schulyers or Delanos or the Sedgewicks or the Auchinclosses.   Those old names have largely gone by the wayside, shunted aside by a new economy that simply doesn't care whether you are from an old family or not, just how much money you make.

Today, a lot of people argue that social mobility is even worse than before - that people have fewer opportunities and that "wealth disparity" or "income disparity" means that a few people have all the money and that the vast majority have none.   Yet of the top 18 richest people in the USA today, only five are not self-made Billionaires.  On the list, only the Mars heir and the Walton family have inherited wealth, and the latter is only one generation away from abject poverty.

That is a pretty startling thing - you can go from nothing to richest person in America even today.  Even fairly recently.   Perhaps the cause of this "income inequality" isn't inherited wealth or our tax code, but the fact we live in an economy where if you come up with a "must have" solution in the computer world, you can become insanely wealthy nearly overnight - something that was simply not possible back in 1957.

Back then, such inventions didn't exist, and what was invented was done at a corporate level and the few solo inventors who did come up with great ideas made little money from them.

I guess the question comes down to this:  Which environment would you want to live in, that of Social Class in America, 1957,  or the social and economic environment we have today?   I can tell you than from my perspective, it is a no-brainer.   Opportunities are far, far better today than they were back in 1957 - for everyone across the board.   Of course, that doesn't mean life is easier today.   The "no brainer" factory or clerical jobs (or gas-jockey jobs) of yesteryear are long gone.   No longer can you get a job out of high school that will pay to raise four kids and pay off your mortgage.

But for the few who want to work hard and achieve - those willing to board that train to New York, for example - the opportunities are even more limitless than they were back in the day.   The Ted's of the world are no longer content to be head of the art department, they own their own media companies.  Ted of 2017 ends up being a Billionaire after dropping the TedCo IPO last week.   Or so it could have gone, anyway.

No, let's leave the past in the past.  The present is so much better.