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Were the 1950s really so good?
on 13 February 2006
In this book Oliver James argues that, though the British people are materially better off than in the 1950s, they are also unhappier. James’ explanation for this is the way advanced capitalism has developed. He argues that consumerism creates expectations that cannot be met. He quotes from statistics showing that the incidence of stress, depression, suicides, violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, and marriage breakdown have all increased compared with the 1950s despite the increase in material wealth of the majority of the population.
But are James’ arguments valid? It is possible to disagree with many of James’ points. Firstly, statistics can be used to demonstrate almost anything and many of those cited by James are misleading and exaggerate the increase in mental health difficulties and social problems.
Secondly, it can be said that he emphasizes today’s problems and minimizes those of previous times; is it really true, that the feudal serf was not so discontented; or that Japanese women do not suffer unhappiness because of their low status? And is the author really saying that people in 1950s – or earlier – did not aspire to better status and compared themselves unfavorably with others?
Thirdly, both the awareness and diagnosis of mental health conditions have changed since the 1950s; many normal processes and activities, which are part and parcel of being human, have been pathologised and medicalised by an ever expanding army of mental health professionals with careers and positions to protect.
Fourthly, James cites the increase in the incidence of divorces as a cause of increasing unhappiness; but the situation that existed when divorce was not easily available, when people were trapped in unhappy marriages – caused untold misery. As did all the old taboos and prejudices that constricted and suffocated life in the 1950s; homosexuality, unmarried motherhood are only two examples.
Fifthly, all the problems James associated with western consumerism, are nothing compared with the misery of the masses in the developing world.
There is something disingenuous and false about this book, with its barely concealed nostalgia for the 1950s, when women knew their place and homosexuality was still a disease. I am glad I wasn’t around at the time.