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Postwar Life and the Baby Boom

Family life changed dramatically in the years after World War II. Marriages occurred at younger ages and in greater numbers than in earlier and later generations. Women bore more children and at a faster rate. Couples stayed together to an extraordinary degree. The result was perhaps the most significant social phenomenon of the century: the baby boom, with 75 million babies born from 1946 to 1964. This accompanied what some refer to as the invention of the "traditional family," with the father as breadwinner, the mother as homemaker, and three or more children completing the household. The baby boom amid postwar prosperity stimulated migrations to "suburbia". Levittown, a community of 17,000 almost-identical homes on Long Island, N.Y., provided the model for developments that appeared across the country. Financing for home purchases often came from loans insured by the Veterans Administration (VA; now the Department of Veterans Affairs) or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). All of this went along with a significant expansion of the American middle class.

The growth of suburbia brought increased dependence on the automobile and required construction of new and better roads, including those built as part of the Interstate Highway System, the largest public-works project to date. While the population increased by 50 percent between 1950 and 1980, the number of automobiles increased by 200 percent. Shopping malls, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's (1955), and discount megastores such as Wal-Mart (1962) were natural corollaries of automobile dependence, as were increased environmental pollution, the decline of central cities, and a lost chance to build a system of mass transportation.

Other technologies changed Americans' lifestyles in these years, among them: antibiotics and poliomyelitis vaccines, the birth control pill, disposable diapers, toothpaste containing fluorides, microwave ovens and automatic washers, air-conditioning, jet propulsion in aircraft, latex paint, high fidelity record players and LP records, rotary power mowers, and synthetic fibers. The technological device with the broadest impact was television, which dictated family schedules and furniture arrangements, gave advertisers a new medium for promoting consumerism, and inspired frozen TV dinners. Although the early television sets operated with vacuum tubes, the transistor, invented in 1947, soon brought smaller and more dependable sets. The transistor quickly became the essential component in many technological devices.

The Serviceman's Readjustment Act, known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, also brought changes to American life. Among its benefits, the one with the greatest impact provided opportunities for veterans to train for skilled occupations or pursue a college education. Almost 8 million veterans of World War II took advantage of these opportunities, requiring colleges to expand in size and number and change in character to serve them.

The Affluent Society
After coping with inflation, work stoppages by labor unions, and other difficulties in the immediate postwar years, the nation experienced substantial economic growth. The growth resulted from pent-up demand, reconversion of industry to domestic production, favorable government policies, and new technologies. The widespread prosperity led economist John Kenneth Galbraith to title his book on America in the 1950s The Affluent Society (1958). Affluence created a materialistic society in which aspirations of consumers, stimulated by advertising, became a driving force. Even a religious revival in the late 1950s bore marks of consumerism, as churches learned from the marketing practices of the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham. During these years, an ecumenical movement caused institutional barriers among religions to be lowered, and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), introduced changes in church practice that affected the lives of American Catholics. Notwithstanding these developments and similar ones before and since, a report by the Gallup Poll in 1996 showed that religious beliefs and practices continued to be much the same from the 1930s to the end of the century.

As affluence continued in the 1960s, accompanied by a civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Vietnam, young people on college campuses joined protest movements and rebelled against established norms and institutions. Borrowing practices of the beat movement, and with hippie attire and using drugs freely, they formed a loosely defined counterculture. A few year earlier, Elvis Presley had seized the nation's attention with his performances of rock 'n' roll blending rhythm and blues, gospel music, and jazz. Rock music was integral to the counterculture, but it also enjoyed popularity with all youth, particularly after the arrival of the Beatles from England in 1964.

Trends evident in the more traditional culture of the 1960s continued in subsequent decades; for example, fascination with professional sports; relaxation of the rules of courtship; fashions that reached for extremes, some inspired by the counterculture; and, on the one hand, running, dieting, nutrition awareness, and concern over the effects of smoking, and on the other, use of drugs.

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