What was it like growing up in the 1970s?

(This was originally a message board post people seemed to really enjoy, so I felt free to republish it here.)

When the 1970s began, Vietnam was still going on but the hippies were starting to thin out. It took pot a few years to grow mainstream (by my early high school years late in the decade it seemed like I was the only one not smoking it). Then Nixon got in trouble and resigned. I got a pretty good laugh over his later rehabilitation, given how deeply and nationally he was excoriated. In a sense, he was the initiator of the modern political climate, where the good of the nation has ceased to factor and the only thing that matters is beating the other guy. This was confirmed when Ford promptly turned around and pardoned him.

The energy crisis was just unreal. What most people do not realize today is that, in terms of relative purchasing power, the $4/gal spikes a couple years ago were probably less dramatic than what we saw in the early 70s, with gas lines around the block and rationing in place. Just as when gas was hovering around $0.80 in the late 1990s, it was actually a lot cheaper than the $0.25/gal I remember as the lowest price in my lifetime’s awareness (late 60s). As ever, most people simply have no idea how to compare costs and values from one era to the next.

One big kerfluffle was the gas pumps. They were not digital–the numbers rolled on a spindle inside–nor were they equipped to show prices over $0.99.9. When gas cleared a buck a gallon, just about every gas pump in the country required a retrofit. What a goat rodeo.

A lot of new stuff came along: the desktop digital calculator (we were awed), video games (wanting an Atari in the mid-70s was like wanting a PS3 a couple of years back, only more so because there was nothing before it), and the fadeout of party lines. (Yes, they were a prime tool for snooping on your neighbors’ conversations, and yes, that did occur. It was a punishable offense to fail to yield a party line if someone declared an emergency.)

Carter got elected just as the post-Vietnam national malaise was settling in. It lasted into the early 1980s. Might have been the worst president ever for the time in which we got him. Inflation up to double digits. Interest rates for borrowing up in the same neck of the woods. People with decent credit and income who do not buy houses now, at today’s depressed mortgage rates and prices, simply have no idea of the historic buying opportunity before them, perhaps because it was before they were born. Carter’s focus was to rag on the rest of the world to have better human rights. (Everyone ignored him.) That didn’t do jack for our flopping national morale. The modern deification of the troops? Unthinkable. Did not exist. The military was outdated, had too many druggies, and the junior officer corps in particular was shaky. Good thing the Soviets didn’t invade West Germany in 1976–they probably would have won. Happy Bicentennial.

Then comes the second defining event of the era after the energy crisis, the Iran hostage crisis. On top of that, we couldn’t even make a rescue attempt without a desert disaster. In 1979, “person who burns flags” became synonymous in many minds with “Iranian” in many minds, and the term “Iran” acquired a lasting toxicity akin to that which “Jane Fonda” has with Vietnam vets. Every night on the national news, Walter Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is, this 300th (or whatever) day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran.” When I see Iran talking about getting nuclear weapons, it proves to me that they understand us as poorly as we understand them. They truly believe that we think like them–like pragmatic Near Easterners interested in bargaining, who understand the game. They have no idea. A lot of us in those days felt so infuriated that we would have welcomed and endorsed an air attack on Iran’s population centers with weapons of mass destruction (not a chance under Carter), and some of us (emotionally, if not practically–and not everyone looks at such matters with a practical side) think it’s long overdue. That generation–mine–is now starting to run the country. If Iran had any idea of how much lasting loathing it created by taking and keeping the hostages, and how gladly some people would open up on them even thirty years later, they would turn pale. They would immediately shut down anything and everything nuclear. They would not do the least thing to give an excuse to people who, at least on an emotional level, would love a pretext to even that score with modern weapons. I’m not saying this is the right idea for us as a nation today (at least not with my rational side…), just pointing out what kind of fire they are playing with. If they knew, and they are sane (and I think they are, at least when it comes to their own survival), they would throw a bucket of water on that fire and never light it again.

That’s part of the reason the 1980 Olympic ice hockey victory meant so much, why everyone can remember where he or she was when we beat the USSR (probably glued to the TV; it should not be forgotten that we still had to beat a tough Finnish team to win the gold). We felt like a country that couldn’t do anything right, couldn’t even stop a bunch of radicals from invading our embassy and humiliating our people, couldn’t rescue them without screwing up, completely demoralized. Then came the Olympics and something finally went right. I would describe the 1970s as a time of national pessimism, a sense that we had already lost the Cold War and were just waiting to be the last non-socialist country in the world, a time of things going wrong and government unable or unwilling to do a thing to fix them. We know now, of course, that it didn’t all work out that way. But that’s how it felt at the time.

I disliked the 1970s deeply. I remember them as a nearly unbroken string of bad news, failed leadership, and general impotence. I’d never want them back again. While we had a lot more freedom as kids–we were essentially still as free-range as kids of earlier decades–I for one had the sense that my parents’ generation had completely boned the pooch and was going to leave it up to mine to clean up. And looking around at the people in my school, it seemed pretty obvious we would be too drunk, stoned and lazy to do that. (What I did not foresee was just how much worse they would screw it up; how, presented with golden opportunities, first the Boomers and then their successors would botch them.)

I graduated from high school in 1981 with a general sense of worse things to come, a very dystopian view of my country and even humanity. When the Berlin Wall fell, this dystopian view shook quite a bit–maybe I’d been wrong. Subsequent events proved that it had just been a temporary hiccup. I soon realized that our national psyche had to have its Emanuel Goldstein, a focus for regular sessions of the Two Minutes hate, and if the Soviet one were gone, we’d need a new one and we’d create it as necessary. Without an external enemy to direct the angst toward, it would find its direction inward, and a lot of people had a lot invested in that not happening.


2 thoughts on “What was it like growing up in the 1970s?”

  1. It seems that I am a little older than you, but you pretty well nailed the 70’s vibe for me. Only, when Iran took the hostages, 2 days later I was in the labor room delivering my second child, my oldest son. I have memories ingrained of the doctor and nurses discussing the “hostage crisis” and what we should do. As I learned that we had added a son to our family (no ultrasound in those days, just to learn the baby’s sex), I recall wondering what kind of world I was bringing him into – if we’d be at war in the Middle East. Flash forward 19 years. My oldest son joined the army in 1998. Things were kind of peaceful around the world then, for our military. He did have a six month deployment to Kosovo, but that didn’t seem too bad. Then there was 9-11 and Afghanistan. He wasn’t deployed there – yet. In 2003 he was deployed to Iraq for the first time. Then again in 2005. In 2008 he was deployed to Afghanistan for the first time. Last year he was in Afghanistan for his second tour there. I can’t help but wonder if all this fits into some great scheme – going from delivery room conversation to worrying about my son when he’s deployed to the Middle East.

    Thanks for posting your take on the 70’s. It’s not a decade I’d want to go through again, except the getting married and having kids part.


What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.