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The Final Decades

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Although discord was pervasive, certain other interrelated forces influenced the lives of the American people in the final decades of the century.

The Technological Revolution. The most obvious such force was the rapid evolution of technology. While the automobile and television remained essential ingredients in the lives of most Americans, new technologies reached also into business and industry, farming, banking, schools, politics, marital relationships, childrearing, religion, housekeeping and home maintenance, shopping, medical practices and health care, and many more areas of life. The benefits were considerable. So were the costs, including such things as the stress resulting from a quickened pace of life, the potential loss of privacy, and damage to ecosystems.

Essential to technological breakthroughs was the silicon chip capable of storing vast amounts of information. Rudimentary computers served limited functions in business as early as the 1940s, but when personal computers (PCs) came of age in the 1980s, thanks to the chip, they quickly became essential and ubiquitous tools. With the PC came the development and widespread use of the Internet and the World Wide Web. At century's end, computers' roles in the transmission and storage of data, the operation of electronic devices of all kinds, and the control of mechanical equipment, from microwaves to automobiles to power plants, were certain to multiply.

A Complex Society. The second force was the increasing complexity of America, a natural consequence of the maturing industrial economy. This complexity was evident throughout society. For example, unilateral and hierarchical decision-making practices that had been the norm in almost every unit of society were displaced by those based on the belief that broad participation was more effective. Although certainty, coherence, and commitment had only recently been seen as ideals of society, ambiguity, chaos, and tentativeness now seemed to became more acceptable. Confidence in reason as essential in problem solving gave way to the belief that intuition and emotion should also play a part. Progress continued to be valued, but concerns arose about its cost and attainability.

Changes in the structure of families reflected the complexity of the times. The 1990 census reported the average size of households to be the smallest ever, partly due to low birthrates, but also because single-person households increased to one-fourth of the total. More than one-fourth of the children in the United States lived with a single parent, double the proportion of 1970. Divorce rates reached a peak of 5.3 per 1,000 people in 1981, partly as a result of changes in divorce laws. Despite slight decreases in subsequent years, few expected the rates to return to levels of the 1950s. Because many divorced persons remarried, the number of families including stepchildren increased so significantly that such families were no longer considered extraordinary. Cohabitation outside of marriage also became increasingly common.

Some trends of the previous decades were reversed in the 1990s. For example, although the proportion of births to unmarried teenage mothers had increased sharply between 1960 and the early 1990s, it began to decline in the late 1990s. Fear of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS seems to have contributed to the decline.

Changes in family functions were striking. Gathering around the table regularly for meals occurred less frequently, while eating out and on the run increased. The arrival of multiple television sets in most households and the proliferation of cable TV channels made it less likely that family members would watch television together. Stereo headsets and video and computer games played by individuals interfered with family interactions. With increasing numbers of mothers employed outside the home, the need for child-care arrangements became more pressing. Both the cost and the difficulty of finding high-quality care complicated parents' choices.

Members of the baby boom generation found themselves confronted by a demographic phenomenon with many implications: their parents lived longer than those in previous generations. Even when the parents lived independently, their children attended to some of their needs. Providing care when independent living was impossible was complicated and costly. The longer lives of seniors combined with the low birthrates in succeeding generations meant that seniors steadily became a larger proportion of the population. Because many older people were in failing health, they required a disproportionate share of medical services. Thanks to social security, Medicare, and personal savings, the proportion of seniors living in poverty declined. Through organizations such as the the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), seniors wielded considerable political influence.

Other demographic trends helped reshape America at the end of the century. One such was the rapid growth of cities in sunbelt states-particularly in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California-and the continued suburbanization of metropolitan areas. Another was the different immigration pattern. In the first two decades of the century, more than 86 percent of the immigrants came from Europe, 4 percent from Latin America, and 3 percent from Asia; between 1980 and 1996, fewer than 11 percent came from Europe, while 35 percent came from Asia and 50 percent from Latin America.

Minorities. The third force, with both social and political implications, concerned groups victimized by racial prejudice. Although these groups grew in number in the 1980s and 1990s, they found the political climate to be less cordial to their causes than in the preceding decades. Rather, the federal government during the presidency of Ronald Reagan reversed some of the earlier gains by minority groups, and subsequently these groups suffered setbacks in the courts and at the state level, as well. At the same time, both minorities and women were disproportionately represented among the poor, who did not share in the prosperity enjoyed by the already-wealthy in the later 1990s. The widening gap between the rich and the poor is likely to be a consequential legacy of the last decades of the 20th century.

The Promise of American Life. Early in the 1990s a journalist wrote about Americans "feeling bad about doing well." Despite unprecedented material prosperity, he said, Americans were "routinely glum." The reason was our addiction to "entitlement," that is, the belief that the government somehow must guarantee the American people bountiful lives.

As the new century began the guarantees appeared to be honored. Unemployment and inflation were low, economic growth was steady, the federal budget was balanced, and the people believed that, in material terms at least, the promise of America could be realized. Members of all racial minorities, though disadvantaged in many ways, also made significant economic gains, and women claimed a larger and better-rewarded place in almost every field of employment. Crime rates were declining, environmental laws had produced good results, and the population was generally more healthy than in the past. But economic conditions were subject to change, other favorable trends could easily be reversed, and the contentious social issues remained. The promise was only a promise, not a guarantee.

  • Subjects:
    American History
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