As the Seventies were ushered in, Barbra Streisand was queen of the big screen, organic food fanciers were full of mung beans, and skirt skirmishes occurred between mini and midi wearers. That year we celebrated Earth fey, deplored Vietnam and Cambodia. The Charles Manson murder case horrified us; encounter groups stroked us. Abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment were hotly debated; Ted Kennedy's name was mentioned as a presidential candidate in '72. Plus ca change . . . .
Newsweek magazine: "The U.S. auto industry faces a year of uncertain hazards. Sales are sagging, imports are rising and criticism is mounting from federal regulators, consumers and conservationists alike. Even worse, there are signs that the long American love affair with the automobile might be jaded."
Sound familiar? Those words were actually written in 1970 -- when gasoline cost 36 cents a gallon -- to herald a newcomer on the automotive scene, "the first of a new breed of subcompact cars designed to compete with the tide of imports." The car was American Motors Corp.'s Gremlin; the tide rolled on anyway. Imports rose from 15.6 percent of sales to approximately 22 percent in 10 years.
By decade's end we were into outer space, hot tubs and physical fitness. Americans earned more, spent more and saved less during the '70s. We lived through the sharpest recession since the Great Depression. In the last years we learned to live with inflation as if it were an annoying in-law, a no-win situation. Investors deserted the stock market, stashing their cash in gold, playing Monopoly in money markets in an effort not to lose more purchasing power.
Savings plunged from 7.4 percent of income to 4 percent in a decade. Plastic money proliferated as consumer credit purchases hit a historic high of $118 billion, or 22.6 percent of disposible personal income. Inevitably the temptation to charge it became too great, and the consumer loan delinquency rate soared from 1.8 percent to 2.6 percent. the rate of personal bankruptcies rose from 88 per 100,000 population in 1970 to 106 after the 1974-75 recession before falling back to 90 at decade's end.
Households spent proportionately more for food (18.5 percent of income in 1979 compared with 17.3 percent in 1970) and energy, but less on clothing (6.1 percent versus 8.1 percent). As the price of residential real estate -- one of the few investments that outpaced inflation -- increased at an average annual rate of 18.5 percent, it became customary, and smart, to be "house poor."
Home buyers, whose monthly mortgage payments averaged one quarter of gross income in 1970, stretched that ratio to three to one in the late '70s; only now that unsually meant one-third of two incomes instead of one-third of a single breadwinner's earnings. Meanwhile the average house acquired numerous amenities during the decade, double the number of baths and half again as many bedrooms as in 1970, at a time when household size was declining. Second mortgages, backed by rapidly accumulating equity in homes, became an increasingly common way of sending the kids through college or just keeping up with the neighbors.
During much of what has been dubbed the Me Decade, people talked about the quality of life, with the implication if was improving. By its end, the expression more frequently used was standard of living, with the implication it was declining.
In "Work in America: The Decade Ahead," pollster Daniel Yankelovich describes the effect of the new narcissism on the work force: "In the 1970s, the aspirations for self-fulfillment of millions of Americans split away from the traditional symbols of success (big cars, appliances). This happened for many complex reasons having to do with the sexual revolution, the effects of the women's movement on the family, the dying off of the generation scarred by the Great Depression of the 1930s, a growing disillusionment with the ability of our institutions to deliver the goods, the failure of the economy to live up to people's expectations of a steady annual increase in income, a questioning of whether the values of a consumption economy are worth the nose-to-the-grindstone way of life that pays for all the goodies, an almost subliminal awareness that energy shortages and environmental hazards call for a new orientation and a further evolution of individualism into the quest for less conforming personal life styles."
In an introduction to the same book, editors Clark Kerr and Jerome M. Rosow discuss the growing discontent about performing dead-end, low-paying jobs and warn that this work ethic may turn out to contain the seeds of its own destruction: Hard work leads to affluence, affluence leads to new life styles and new life styles diminish the work ethic.
Its effect seems illustrated by the drop in annual U.S. productivity from an average increase of 3.2 percent during the postwar decades to minus 0.6 percent recently. (It should not be forgotton, however, that the switch of a considerable segment of the economy from manufacturing to service industries and the decrease in capital formation -- new money to produce new jobs -- have affected productivity equally, if not more, in the same period.)
In a word, today's worker is getting more and giving less. Unions have successfully bargained contracts guaranteeing periodic wage increases without increasing their output. It is a phenomenon of the decade that at the same time more people are working, more people also are choosing when and if to work. Generous unemployment and welfare benefits, two paycheck families that have cut the shackles bingint the sole breadwinner to his job, alternate work patterns like flexitime, these and other changes have caused a revolution in the workplace.
None more so than the mass entry of women, most of them white and middle class, into the job market. Affirmative action programs began to concentrate on women instead of blacks.
As the decade began, pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock deplored the increasing competitiveness of women and their refusal to accept traditional child-rearing roles. Hubert Humphrey's personal physician, Dr. Edgar Berman, said women's "raging hormonal imbalance" limited their potential for business and government leadership. Thousands of women marched down Fifth Avenue during the summer of 1970 in support of equality.
During the '70s, female employes of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. initiated an antidiscrimination suit that was to win them millions of dollars in back pay. Women won the right to get in their own names. By the end of the decade, women who had been suffering male put-downs for years were winning substantial sums in sexual harrassment lawsuits against their bosses. But they were still making on average $183 a week, or 62 percent of men's wages.
In 1970, some 43 percent of America's women held jobs. Ten years later, a majority, 51.4 percent, did. The percentage of working women increased as much during the 1970s as during the preceding two decades. Volunteer work went the way of the bustle. So was dropping out to do your own thing in leather or clay at a mountain retreat. It became so chic to make a buck that princesses made jeans and senator's wives sold real estate. Self-fulfillment became an end in itself, unless, or course, you really needed the money. And by the end of the decade, more and more women -- as well as their children and husbands -- did need that extra paycheck.
The number of women in the labor force swelled from 31.5 million in 1970 to 44 million this year. Many of the new entrants were middle-aged, returning to work after raising their children, to find they were prepared only for low-paying, routine jobs. Their own daughters have learned from their experience, and now these women increasingly postpone having children or return to work quickly after giving birth. Only 7 percent of the country's 58 million families today consist of a father who works and a mother who remains at home to care for her two children.
For every 1979 woman who dresses in gray flannel and carries a briefcase to her law office, there are thousands who continue to dress in white and carry trays. One-third of all women today still do clerical work, the same proportion as a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The drops have come in the service area, composed of maids, waitress and the like, (down from 21.7 percent to 20.7 percent) and blue collar sector, (down from 16.1 percent to 14.8 percent). Conversely, the percentage of female professional and technical employes has inched up from 14.5 percent of 15.6 percent, while the number of managers has jumped from 4.5 percent to 6.1 percent.
Despite their population increases, blacks remained nearly static during the decade as a percentage of the work force. The gains they made in the booming '60s as well as through the actions of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were lost during the 1974-75 recession. A few years later the concept of reverse discrimination was admitted by the Supreme Court.
By the end of the decade, black unemployment was up to 10.8 percent, once again at its traditional level of nearly double that of the work force as a whole; it also stood slightly above the jobless level for Hispanics (9.1 percent). One black teenager in three was unemployed, 4 percent more than at the start of the 1970s.
Blacks registered gains, though, in the types of jobs filled -- clerical, technical and managerial fields. As they deserted the ranks of domestic and factory workers, Hispanics and Asians moved in. The outstanding exception was college-educated women with advanced degrees, for whom the doors of executive suites opened wide.
Ten years ago the average weekly paycheck of blacks and other minorities came to less than three-quarters of that of whites. Today the income of the black working full time has increased to 83 percent of the white's. Black women, incidentally, earned much more by comparison to their white counterparts than did black males to white males. Nevertheless the median family income of blacks declined from 61 percent of whites' to 59 percent. This stems in part from more black families being headed by single females, who have lower incomes.
The custom of early retirement, which Americans had come to regard almost as an inalienable right, continued well into the '70s. But persistent inflation at last made it plain the olden years might no longer be golden years. Social Security finances faced an uncertain future; there was talk of reduced benefits or raising the eligibility age. Mandatory retirement at age 65 was outlawed.
As the '60s closed, City Hall's major worries were racial tension, the housing shortage, pollution, urban transportation, bankruptcy and crime, declared an editorial in Nation's Cities. They still are as the '80s come into being, said Alan Beals, executive director of the National League of Cities. Add to them the energy crisis and, in some Eastern metropolises, the displacement of poor minorities by middle class whites involved in a back-to-the-cities movement.
Arising from the ashes of the 1960s' riots, America's cities found themselves once again with their feet to the fire. For the first time since the Great Depression, they teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. The government's big bailout of the Big Apple eventually led to the formation of the first national urban policy. The amount of federal aid to the cities, which had been on an ad hoc basis before 1970, increased significantly when the revenue-sharing program allocated funds to the cities on the criteria of need. Federal grants to state and local governments amounted to $24.4 billion, or 12 percent of their receipts, in 1970; in 1978, this amount came to $76.6 billion, or 23 percent of their income. One manifesttion has been a spate of subways for the '70s -- Atlanta, Miami, San Francisco and Washington.
Still, for every Society Hill rehabilitation there remains a South Bronx wasteland. A dozen years ago, a blue-ribbon commission advised that the country needed to have 600,000 government-assisted housing units built each year. Today the number is short of 400,000. California became the nation's largest state in the first year of the '70s. Since then, the Sun Belt has continued to drain the lifeblood from the old industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.
Labor unions lost ground during the decade. Membership dropped from 22.6 percent of the total labor force in 1970 to 19.7 percent in 1978. The number of decertification elections has increased fivefold since the 1950s, and unions lose approximately three-quarters of the cases. Labor's decline parallels that of the manufacturing sector, particularly steel and autos, where their great strength once lay. The construction trade is now only half unionized.
Yet if there are fewer blue collar workers, there are more public employes joining unions. These tend to be younger and better-educated, include more women and minorities, and demand more of a voice in corporate policymaking. The prebailout Chrysler settlement, in which workers give up benefits in exchange for power on the board of directors, may be a prototype of trends to come. Sitting down with management as the same table was unthinkable during George Meany's heyday, yet in the past 10 years almost all major unions have elected new presidents, who are characterized less by bluster than by better education and technical skills.
At the start of the Seventies, Ralph Nader won a $425,000 invasion of privacy suit against. General Motors because the auto giant used spies in an effort to discredit him after he declared their cars unsafe. The consumer movement was in its heyday. And an oil slick off Santa Barbara precipitated a great environmental wave. While Big Business bellyached and the White House balked, Congress appeared eager to get on the bandwagon.
The result was a crop of new laws, new regulations and new agencies. Those that were to become the most controversial included the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Employe Retirement Income Security Act and the Consumer Product Safety Commisson. Another bellwether agency, which would have lobbied government on behalf of consumer causes, died aborning.
By the end of the decade, the tide was going out on consumerism. The Federal Trade Commission was being virtually dismantled as Congress, under pressure from interest groups, stopped one investigation after another. Public sentiment, exemplified by Proposition 13, turned against more government intrusion into private lives and its attendant costs. Rising inflation and a declining economy gave credence to business and labor complaints that excess regulation was restricting their growth and endangering employment. Moderation became the watchword: Some deadlines on exhaust emissions were extended in response to pleas from the beleaguered auto industry; small businesses, which were the hardest hit by costly paperwork required to comply with OSHA and ERISA regulations, were exempted.
Big Business felt itself under attack from both consumers and government during much of the '70s. The oil companies still smarted as they ended. Public confidence in major companies, as measured by pollster Louis Harris, dropped. In 1971, some 27 percent of those surveyed expressed a "great deal" of confidence compared with 18 percent in 1979, although fully half the same showed "some" confidence throughout.
By decade's end, the public had come to expect from business what militants had demanded 10 years earlier, according to Larry Wiseman, vice president of Yankelovich, Skelly and White. On the other hand, as inflation's grip on John Q. Public's pocketbook became stronger, he, like his government, began to recognize the need for trade-offs between the ideal and the cost-feasible. Consumerism had become institutionalized.
During the decade America's youth who has waved banners protesting polluters or "obscence profits" began to drop them in favor of briefcases. Oh, they were still capable of turning out on occasion to protest nuclear power. But at the same time record numbers of men and women studied economics and business management as well as science and technology, foresaking the favorite subjects of the previous decade, sociology and religion.
Was it the recession of 1974-75 or the simple necessity of getting a good job when starting a family that caused the change? Or was it the fact that Americans lost their economic innocence during the '70s?
As the Sobering Seventies ended, the party was over for a generation drunk on the almighty dollar and American invincibility. The Me Decade, still incredulous that the music has stopped, staggered into the chilling dawn of the Eighties.