The recession that began in December 2007 produced a change in Americans’ perception of their economic future. They moved from the tradition of hope to one of just barely hanging on. I have never seen this before. Only someone born around 1910 can recall anything like it, assuming that he recalls anything at all.
My parents were born in 1917. They were teenagers in the 1930s. The did not experience the euphoria of the roaring twenties, when the stock market soared after 1924, and there was tremendous optimism based on the new technologies or radio and air travel. The sky was literally the limit. People believed that Europe’s war debts were irrelevant, that the recession of 1921 had ended recessions, that America was the wave of the future.
By 1932, that euphoria was a thing of the distant past. Unemployment was at 20%. Prices were down at least 25%. Over 6,000 banks had failed. There was no sector of the economy that was flourishing except gold mining, which had the benefit of a price floor set by law. Then things got worse. Another 3,000 banks failed. Prices continued to decline. Unemployment rose.
That was the world in which my parents went to high school. My mother still talks about it. She remembers men in Portland, Oregon, begging for food, willing to do odd jobs just to eat. Those years scarred her. They scarred her generation, who never fully bought into the idea that prosperity is created by personal debt. They did not fully participate in the debt-driven post—World War II boom, which relied on an extension of consumer credit. Credit worked because people saved. The end of the wartime price controls, coupled with the return of the troops to civilian life, extended the opportunities for capital. Money went into new industries. It went into housing, which was revolutionized by new techniques of mass production.
THE GOOD TIMES ROLLED
My generation knew nothing of hard times. Neither did the generation born in the late 1920s, which did not get shipped out to fight the war, and which came to adulthood in the postwar boom.
All of our lives, we have seen economic progress. Television replaced radio as the technology of the future in 1949—53. Energy was cheap. Cars were everywhere. Teenagers had their own used cars, their own records, their own subculture.
I watched The Glenn Miller Story last week. It was made in 1954. It holds up well. I remember seeing it at age 12. I liked it. It led to a revival of Glenn Miller record sales, nine years after his death. What struck me in watching it was that Miller and his musical peers aimed at audiences of all ages. Younger adults bought their records, but so did their parents. By 1954, when the movie was released, this had begun to change. Teenagers soon adopted music preferences that excluded their parents. This never changed back. A friend of mine went to a stage production of The Buddy Holly Story recently. There on the theater’s wall was a poster from one of Holly’s tours. “Tickets, $1.50. Parents get in free.” Not many parents came. The mantra of parents had begun: “Turn that thing down!”
I was reminded of all this last Saturday night, after I had I driven for over three hours to Nashville to see a show. It was a gathering of guitar pickers. It was in honor of James Burton. I have consciously followed Burton for over 40 years, but I was influenced by him for over 50 years. In 1957, Ozzie Nelson, band leader of the 1930s, brought him from Louisiana to Hollywood to back up his son Ricky, Ozzie’s answer to Elvis. It worked.