Me Decade

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Me Decade

The 1970s have been referred to as many things, but are often remembered as a decade of selfish and self-indulgent behaviour. In

Habits of the Heart, one of the most influential books about the decade, Robert Bellah noted that "there has been a shift from a socially integrated paradigm for structuring well-being, to a more personal or individuated paradigm for structuring well-being." Following the stereotypical homogeneity of the 1950s and the tumult of the 1960s, many American institutions had broken down and Americans were left with very little holding them together. In lieu of such common fabric, many scholars argue that Americans in the 1970s formed the "me generation."

The political crises of Vietnam and Watergate, coupled with record high inflation, forced many Americans to retreat from social concerns in order to think more singularly about personal growth and success during the 1970s. Self-help books proliferated, and offered advice far different from the "work hard and succeed" mantra that had guided previous generations. Bestsellers like Wayne Dyer's Your Erroneous Zones (1976) and Thomas Anthony Harris's I'm O.K, You're O.K. (1969) urged readers to know and accept themselves and to celebrate who they were, and Werner Erhard's est seminars used strict training within a group format to build self-awareness and offer individual fulfillment. George and Nena O'Neill's Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples (1972) advised couples to take their newfound self-knowledge and share it with others within the context of a marriage that allowed multiple sexual partners. Those who sought self-knowledge without the touchy-feely psychologizing took part in some of the many health and fitness fads that blossomed during the 1970s, including the jogging craze and the growth of interest in healthy cooking and vegetarianism.

Though individuals seemed bent on pursuing personal growth, social and economic changes in the 1970s brought a new homogeniety to American culture. Business growth generated massive mergers and the formation of conglomerates that would lay the framework for an economic shift toward service industries. Many such enterprises expanded globally, creating multinational companies that soon exceeded the power of the nations in which they operated. McDonald's, for instance, erected 4,000 new outlets during the 1970s. What McDonald's did for hamburgers, Holiday Inn did for travel, Kmart for retailing, and 7-11 stores for neighborhood groceries. Every American city of any size had a "miracle mile" or "strip" nearly identical to that of every other. And, as more white Americans left the troubled inner cities for the safer suburbs, the homogeniety of community life increased as well.

Rick Moody's 1994 novel The Ice Storm (filmed in 1997 by director Ang Lee) dissected the sense of anomie that lay at the heart of those living in the me decade. Moody depicted a set of bored middle-aged adults whose search for happiness in drink, work, or with their neighbor's spouse leaves them blind to the collapse of their family life. Moody captured the stereotype of the decade; like all stereotypes, it contained more than a grain of truth.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985.

Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Fox, Richard W., and T. J. Lears. The Culture of Consumption. New York, Pantheon, 1983.

Moody, Rick. The Ice Storm. Boston, Little Brown, 1994.