Christians: Time to live on (post Recession) 1960 incomes

Party Perfect Magazine Cover, 1950s

1950s teen party, Party Perfect Magazine Cover

The recent Census numbers contained one that should have startled people. Income has dropped so much in this Great Recession that the average household now makes, in constant dollars, what the average household made in 1960.

Five decades of income gains have been wiped out in just five years. Young people starting out will not just fail to exceed their parents’ achievements; they will be fortunate to match what their grandparents accomplished.

I’m not knocking life during that period. For those prone to live in nostalgia, the 1950s and early 1960s look like a wonderful time. And I’m not entirely inclined to argue.

It’s 1960 all over again

I like The Honeymooners and Leave it to Beaver. I’ve searched all my life for a pair of cherry-colored pumps like I used to clump around in when I was 5 or 6. I miss the times when we had time … time to just play with other kids … time to sit out after dinner on the neighbor’s lighted patio … time to tell stories that took on lives of their own. I still remember, years later, about the neighbor who hung many, many bird feeders from her patio roof, and the unfortunate accident when a well-fed bird took a dump in her carefully coiffed and sprayed hair.

Some celebrate vintage wardrobes and lifestyles

There’s a wonderful network reviving elements of that period. They’re creating online shops that sell the wardrobe; they blog period recipes and vintage magazine articles about homemaking; they share patterns for dresses and aprons and tips for how to keep your hair looking cute all day long. (“I could run to the carpool lane in my sweats, but what would that do for my self-esteem?” one of them blogs. “I like to look like a princess!”)

Expect other changes (challenges?)

And yet, for those of us who remember more completely (or to read hard data), we know that the return of our 1950s and 1960s way of life will also bring challenges:

* We’ve become used to living in homes with an average size of nearly 2,400 square feet and a bathroom for each person. Ward Cleaver was an executive and his two boys still shared a bedroom. The average home size in 1960 was less than half what it is today. What will we do with all our stuff? More important, will we learn to get along in such close quarters?

Can we get over living alone?

* We’re in the habit of living by ourselves. In those small 1960 homes, we were more likely to live with our parents until we married, and more likely to have grandparents living with the family. Today, we’re relatively unlikely even to have a roommate. Can we re-learn the skills of getting along with other people?

* We’re in the habit of buying whatever we want. On a 1960s income, we shared much more: children’s clothing; heavy garden tools; specialty baking pans. Will we be able to let go of owning precisely what we want and accept simply using what we need?

* We’re in the habit of spending money we don’t have today on the assumption we will be able to pay tomorrow. The late Larry Burkett spoke most succinctly to this habit. “God has provided for your needs,” he said. “If God hasn’t provided, you don’t need it.”

The fish, the Gecko, and Al Quaida

Like the fish who doesn’t know what water is (because water is where he lives), we have become very accustomed to a world defined by the process of accumulating money and “stuff.” Unlike the fish, we are not this way by God’s design. When God talks about “greed” in the Bible, God is describing something so fundamental it is almost incomprehensible to us: “the desire for more.”

Can’t you feel the rebellion stirring in you already? You don’t have to be Gordon Gecko to believe that “the desire for more” is what drives a healthy economy. When terrorists assaulted our country on 9/11, our President told us to strike back by spending money. Seriously. The President told our Nation to spend money to show Al Quaida that they had not damagedAmerica.

Maybe at that point we should have all collapsed into ourselves and realized that Al Quaida didn’t need to damage America. The damage was done.

If ‘greed is good’ why learn to do with less?

Is there a difference between “the desire for more” that God considers sinful and healthy hard work and ambition?

Absolutely. One is idolatry. God says so directly in many places in Scripture. Greed, “the desire for more” is idolatry. It is ambition directed at the “more.” It seeks to acquire, to possess, to have. On the other hand, God commands us to work hard. Healthy hard work and ambition is directed at serving God and humanity.

‘Why shouldn’t people who work hard get rich?’

Does healthy hard work result in gain? Often! Does it result in gain at the expense of others? Never! That would be swindling, which is part of God’s frequently repeated catalog of sins. So Gordon Gecko and all his real-life successors who have been gambling with the global economy until it teeters on the brink of collapse, cannot describe themselves as simply working harder and smarter than others. They’ve worked harder at packaging deceptive offerings of financial investments that aren’t worth what they told investors they were worth. That is to say, they’ve worked very hard at swindling others — which is sin.

But it’s not our job to change their behavior. (Although we can urge legislators and regulators to enforce change. And, small aside — the various Occupy groups are using the same form of political pressure that the original Boston Tea Party did, civil disobedience, albeit without destroying anyone’s property.) But all we can change directly is our own behavior in this world which has become so very different from the world in which we lived five years ago.

There’s a lot to be learned from vintage magazines, books and movies (not to mention very much older men and women!) about how to get by in this different world. Because while they may not ever understand how to work all of our technology toys, they do know how to stretch a grocery dollar, make a car last, be patient with one another, entertain each other at home, build much of what is needed, and turn thrift store finds into great decor.

As our grandparents always said: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

It’s time to party like it’s 1959!

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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