1970s and '80s Were a Period of Change in American Society
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This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Ray Freeman with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States. Today, we tell the story about some social and cultural issues of the 1970s and 1980s.
An economics professor from the United States was teaching in Britain in the early 1980s. One of his students asked this question: "What is most important to Americans these days?" He said: "Earning money."
Clearly, his answer was far too simple. Still, many observers would agree that great numbers of Americans in the 1980s were concerned with money. These people wanted the good life that they believed money could buy.
In some ways, the 1980s were the opposite of the 1960s.
The 1960s were years of protest and reform. Young Americans demonstrated against the Vietnam War. African Americans demonstrated for civil rights. Women demonstrated for equal treatment. For many, society's hero was the person who helped others.
For many in the 1980s, society's hero was the person who helped himself. Success seemed to be measured only by how much money a person made.
The period of change came during the 1970s. For a while, these years remained tied to the social experiments and struggles of the 1960s. Then they showed signs of what American would be like in the 1980s. There were a number of reasons for the change.
One reason was that the United States ended its military involvement in Vietnam. Another was that the civil rights movement and women's movements reached many of their goals. A third reason was the economy. During the 1970s, the United States suffered an economic recession. Interest rates and inflation were high. There was a shortage of imported oil.
As the 1970s moved toward the 1980s, Americans became tired of social struggle. They became tired of losing money. They had been working together for common interests. Now, many wanted to spend more time on their own personal interests.
This change appeared in many parts of American society. It affected popular culture, education, and politics.
For example, one of the most popular television programs of that time was about serious social issues. It was called "All in the Family". It was about a factory worker who hates black people and opposes equal rights for women. His family slowly helps him to accept and value different kinds of people.
Other television programs, however, were beginning to present an escape from serious issues. These included "Happy Days" and "Three's Company."
Music showed the change, too. In the 1960s, folk music was very popular. Many folk songs were about social problems. In the 1970s, groups played hard rock and punk music, instead.
Self-help books were another sign that Americans were becoming more concerned about their own lives. These books described ways to make people happier with themselves. One of the most popular was called I'm Okay, You're Okay. It was published in 1969. It led the way for many similar books throughout the 1970s.
The 1970s also saw a change in education. In the 1960s, many young people expressed little interest in continuing their education after four years of study in college. They were busy working for social reforms. Many believed that more education only created unequal classes of people.
By the middle 1970s, however, more young people decided it was acceptable to make a lot of money. Higher education was a way to get the skills to do this. Law schools and medical schools soon had long lists of students waiting to get in.
Politically, the United States went through several changes during the 1970s. There were liberal Democratic administrations for most of the 1960s. Then a conservative Republican, Richard Nixon, was elected. During his second term, President Nixon was forced to resign because of the Watergate case.
Vice President Gerald Ford became president after Nixon's resignation. About two years later, he was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter. The election showed that Americans were angry with the Republican Party because of the Watergate case. But they soon became unhappy with President Carter, too. They blamed him for failing to improve the economy. He lost his campaign for re-election to conservative Republican Ronald Reagan.
The 1980s were called the Reagan years, because he was president for eight of them. During his first term, the recession ended. Inflation was controlled. He reduced taxes. Americans felt hopeful that they could make money again.
Observers created several expressions to describe some groups of people at that time. One expression was "the 'me' generation". This described Americans who were only concerned about themselves. Another expression was "yuppie". It meant "young urban professional". Both these groups seemed as if they lived just to make and spend money, money, and more money.
Entertainment in the 1980s showed the interest society placed on financial success. The characters in a number of television programs, for example, lived in costly homes, wore costly clothes, and drove costly automobiles. They were not at all like average Americans. They lived lives that required huge amounts of money.
Two of these television programs became extremely popular in the United States and in other countries. They were called "Dallas" and "Dynasty".
At the movie theater, a very popular film was called "Wall Street". It was about a young, wealthy, dishonest -- powerful -- man who traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Power was a popular program idea in action films, too. The most successful action films were about a man called "Rambo". Rambo was impossibly heroic. Naturally, he always won. The films showed good winning over evil. But Rambo rejected established rules and was extremely violent.
Another form of entertainment became popular in the 1980s. It was the television talk show. People appeared on these shows mostly to talk about themselves: their politics, their families, their sexual relations. They talked in public about things that were once considered private.
Much of the popular music of the time also showed this new openness. Heavy metal rock groups sang about sex and drugs. And then there was the new form of music called "rap". In this form, words are spoken, not sung, over a heavy beat. Many Americans found all these kinds of music to be too shocking, too violent, too lawless, and too damaging to the human spirit.
People may have talked and sung openly about sex and drugs in the 1980s. But as the years went by, many became increasingly careful about their own activities. This was because sex and drugs became deadly. A new disease appeared at that time. It was called AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. The disease spread in several ways. One was through sexual relations. Another was through sharing the needles used to take illegal drugs.
A big change in American life during the 1980s came as a result of the computer. Computers were invented forty years earlier. They were large machines and were used only at universities, big companies, and in the military.
By the 1980s, computers had become much smaller. Anyone could learn how to use them, even children. Millions of Americans soon had a 'personal' computer in their home. They could use it to read newspaper stories, buy things, do schoolwork, and play games.
Such technological improvement -- and a bright economy -- filled Americans of the early and middle 1980s with hope. Many felt there were almost no limits on the good life they could lead.
This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Ray Freeman. Join us again next week for another V-O-A Special English program about the history of the United States.