1970s: The Me Decade
1970s: The Me Decade
When journalist Tom Wolfe (1931–) surveyed the changes that had swept America in the past few years, he gave the decade a label that has stuck: "The Me Decade." Wolfe and others noticed that the dominant concerns of most people had shifted from issues of social and political justice that were so important in the 1960s to a more selfish focus on individual well-being. What was behind this sudden change in the American mood?
Economic and political shifts help to explain much of the change. From the end of the World War II (1939–45) until the end of the 1960s, the American economy had enjoyed one of its longest extended periods of growth. That growth came screeching to a halt in the 1970s, and matters got worse as the decade continued. An Arab oil embargo halted shipments of oil to the United States, forcing gas prices to raise dramatically and forcing rationing. Another oil crisis in 1979 continued the economic shock. The automobile industry was hit hard by the oil crises and by competition from carmakers in Japan. To make economic matters worse, inflation was rising, which meant that the relative prices of goods were climbing faster than wages were. Many Americans turned inward and focused their attention on their economic problems rather than on problems of politics or social justice.
Politics in the 1970s were very different from in the 1960s as well. Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1972) had led popular crusades to use the government for public good. President Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) became a symbol of the public's mistrust of politicians. He was forced from office in 1974 after the public learned of his involvement in the coverup of a break-in at the Watergate office complex. The Watergate scandal revealed the Nixon administration to be devious and corrupt. In the 1976 election, voters elected former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter (1924–) as president, largely because he had avoided Washington politics and seemed to be an honest man. In the opinion of many citizens, however, Carter's stint as president was ineffective. His unsuccessful term in office further eroded Americans' faith in what the government could accomplish.
The changing social structure of the 1970s can also be explained by the aging of the population. More and more of the baby boomers (those born in the decade after World War II) were leaving college and settling down with families of their own. They did not have time for marches against the war, and besides, the war in Vietnam was already winding down. More and more Americans turned inward, seeking comfort in
spiritual renewal or seeking insight by visiting therapists, reading self-help books, or exercising. Many people gave up trying to perfect the world and tried instead to perfect themselves. The exception to this trend was the growing importance of the feminist movement, which worked hard in the decade to gain equality for women in education and employment, and the environmental movement, which tried to
step up government regulations on pollution and to protect the wilderness.
American popular culture continued to thrive in the 1970s, driven forward by the most popular form of entertainment, the television. By the 1970s, virtually every American had access to a color TV, and programming expanded to include both UHF and VHF broadcasts. By mid-decade, Americans in some cities could access cable TV, which offered even more channels. The quality of TV programming increased in the 1970s, and not just on PBS. In fact, the networks offered a number of intelligent, socially relevant shows. Still, most Americans preferred situation comedies (sitcoms) and detective shows. Sports also remained a popular preoccupation, especially for men, who could watch pro sports on TV all year long.
Music went through some exciting changes in the decade. Rock and roll continued to evolve, producing new variations such as punk rock, new wave, and heavy metal. Funk emerged as a uniquely African American musical form, and disco stole elements of funk and rock to create a popular music and dance craze.
The 1970s was in many ways a decade of fads and crazes. Whether in fashion (with bell-bottoms, hot pants, and mood rings), exercise (jogging, aerobics), play (pet rocks, video games), or dance (disco), Americans picked up new activities and products with abandon, and dropped them soon after.