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Boomers Did Chores by Hand

It’s fall, and that intrusive noise in the neighborhood indicates that leaf blower season is upon us. After a thoroughly unscientific survey of the people Mister Boomer knows, he came to the conclusion that the days we knew — of hand rakes and push brooms — appear to be over, replaced by machines that blow things from one place to another. In Mister B’s limited survey, not a single homeowner owned a rake, nor were they interested in buying one; yet all had a leaf blower. Is this a sign that rakes are headed for extinction in the average home, destined to be equipment needed only for a few lawn care professionals in the near future? Many communities are seeking to ban gas-powered models these days, due to the pollution factor, but there are plenty of electric and cordless models around to take their place.

In our boomer years, raking leaves brought opportunity to some of us, as we could make a dollar or two. For others, it was a chore to which they would have preferred some technological solution because the task was accomplished by hand. For others still, the raking part was the prelude to making piles to jump in and play. For Mister Boomer and his brother, it was a bit of all three. Once the family lawn had been raked, the Boomer Brothers enlisted the help of a couple of neighborhood boys in finding houses that had the most leaves on their property. A lot of the time, people would prefer to do it themselves or have their children do it, but occasionally, the boys were employed. The pay was not great — usually less than snow removal — but it was a way to generate some discretionary income as a preteen.

That got Mister Boomer thinking about things other than leaf raking we used to do by hand — especially chores — that are now replaced with some device. Here are a few that come to mind:

Vacuuming. Today’s busy Domestic Engineers (who could be any man, woman or child) increasingly don’t seem to want to bother with pushing a vacuum over carpets and floors, pretty much the way it had been done since the beginning of the twentieth century. Little by little, robot vacuums are replacing the hand vacuum for household use. What’s more, with the addition of one of those home assistant thingies, the robot vacuum can be be started with a voice command. An interesting side note is that pets — boomer cats and dogs — were frightened of vacuum cleaners. Now, as can be seen in numerous videos, cats jump on the robot models for free rides, and dogs see them as a new plaything. (Rosey the robot maid was so old-fashioned with her built-in hand vacuum!)

Grass mowing. Mister Boomer remembers his first lawn mowing experiences with a hand-push lawn mower. It was a real step up when his father purchased the family’s first gas-powered mower. A neighbor had an electric Sunbeam mower that Mister Boomer thought was pretty cool, but there was always the extension cord to manage. Flash forward to today, and Mister B watched a recent episode of This Old House where a backyard robot lawn mower was installed for the homeowner. The thing was programmed to mow the lawn autonomously, activated by a scheduled program day, pushing a start button or selecting a command from a smartphone app — anywhere in the world. When it finishes the job, it parks itself back in its charging station (can you say, “George Jetson?”).

Dishwashing. Dishwashers were certainly available throughout the boomer years, but Mister Boomer knew very few people who had one installed in their homes. The kids took turns doing the dishes in the kitchen sink, by hand, with a washcloth and dish soap. Mister Boomer’s mother tackled the pots and pans. The family did not have a dishwasher until the last years of the 1970s. Visions of the future always included a method for cleaning dishes to relieve women (then the exclusive keepers of the household) of the daily chore. (Jane Jetson could “do the dishes” with a push of a button). Today, it’s practically a deal-breaker for a young couple to buy a home that does not have a dishwasher.

Car windows. There are few hand gestures that so perfectly describe the action to which one asks another to perform. There is that one, of course, but Mister Boomer refers to, for example, the universal symbol of “check please” by clasping the index finger and thumb together and air-writing a signature in order to get a server to bring the check. For the Boomer Generation, one such hand signal — though technically not a “chore” — was the making of a fist and rotating it in a circular motion. Everyone knew that meant “roll down your car window.” Power windows were around in the boomer years and before, but again, Mister B’s family wasn’t one to have such lavish technologies. He recalls the first time he saw power windows, while riding in a neighbor’s car. His friend’s father fancied used Cadillacs, so while driving the boys one summer day, Mister B watched as his buddy pushed the lever and down came the back door window. In Mister Boomer’s mind, that defined luxury.

Almost all cars come standard with power windows these days. This begs the question, how will you ask someone in the next car if they have any Grey Poupon?

The quick adaption of leaf blowers to replace rakes, house robots and power-everything gadgets signal that we are indeed heading toward the Space Age Future we imagined and were promised in shows like The Jetsons. Yet Mister Boomer has to ask, wouldn’t a leaf vacuum be more practical?

What hand chores have you replaced with technology, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Seasons,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Feared the Automation Reaper

The recent buzz about the coming round of automation is instilling fear and dread in the hearts of some, while fulfilling the promised dreams of a future world for others. The interesting thing to Mister Boomer is, like Yogi Bera said back in the day, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

This has all happened before. During the Industrial Revolution, thousands of jobs were rendered unnecessary in the wake of technological advances in modern machinery. At first, small jobs were automated — the types of jobs that could save a small business owner, farmer or homemaker hours of work — and were generally well received. In other words, these devices were viewed as labor savers rather than labor subtracters.

When steam-powered machinery entered the industrial world, things changed on a larger scale. One of the industries where jobs were particularly impacted by the automation of the late 1800s was the textile industry. Suddenly a single machine could replace hundreds that were needed to man looms to create fabric. The response from workers was predictably negative. Workers revolted, protested, sabotaged machines, and even burned down plants. Yet in the end, the jobs were lost as new methods replaced old. As time went on, new technology created more jobs than it eliminated, and the country prospered.

The end of World War II brought a new wave of innovation to the forefront in American business, and with it a national optimism for a new future that gave rise to the Baby Boom. However, a rising unease gripped the country by the mid-50s as automation found its way into offices and factories. The prevailing fear was that machines would be replacing people, and jobs would be lost. Ironically, in the decade after the War, the unemployment rate had steadily declined.

The auto industry, as it had done in the 1920s, brought a great deal of automation to their processes. Between 1951 and ’53, the Ford Motor Company constructed new automated stamping plants for engine parts in Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio, that the company hoped would relieve the stress of the strikes, outages and union negotiations experienced in the 1940s. Ultimately, it was discovered that people were still a necessary part of that equation at those plants — the loading and unloading of machines, and therefore the production pace of the machinery, needed to be managed by humans after all. It would be a couple of decades before robotic loading and packing could fully enter the process. While experiencing fits and starts with their automated processes, the auto industry had greater success in automating the dirtiest jobs, such as spot welding and spray painting.


Desk Set (1957) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Isn’t it amazing that they got the automated function correct, but the computer now fits on a desk?

Fear of mass unemployment was growing as the 1950s became the ’60s and the country entered 10 months of recession. Lawmakers in Washington heard the buzz and wondered aloud what, if anything, they should do about it. President Kennedy addressed the public’s concerns in a speech he gave on May 25, 1961. The president proposed “… a new Manpower and Training Development program to train or retrain several hundred thousand workers particularly in those areas where we have seen chronic unemployment as a result of technological factors and new occupational skills over a four-year period, in order to replace those skills made obsolete by automation and industrial change with the new skills which the new processes demand.” Most people will not remember this part of Kennedy’s speech, because it is the same one in which he laid down the challenge to American science and business for “… landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth …” within the decade.

By 1964, concerns of automation causing unemployment had not been assuaged. This led President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law creating a National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. The Commission released its report in February of 1966.
In addressing the situation on behalf of the American worker, the Commission recommended several steps be taken. Among them:
• a program of public service employment to provide work for “hard-core unemployed” in useful community enterprises
• a guaranteed minimum income for every family
• removing obstacles to education, including universal high school education and up to 14 years of schooling guaranteed
• a national, computerized job-matching service to provide information to workers on where jobs were available
• relocation assistance for families

Boomers hit the job market in the swirl of this automation tempest, only to become the engineers of the automated future we are now facing. Some prognosticators are now forecasting that automation will affect nearly half of all workers in the next decade. Many jobs once held by boomers have long since been replaced by automation, with more sure to come. How many boomers were pinsetters in bowling alleys? switchboard operators? typesetters? keypunch operators? The list continues to grow.

Automation did not adversely affect Mister Boomer’s working life. He, like many boomers, became adaptable as computers entered various fields. In fact, he credits his embrace of the personal computer for his later-life work success. Now that he is anticipating retirement, Mister B looks back with nostalgia, but is very glad he doesn’t have to face a job market rife with the prospect of diminishing career opportunities.

How about you, boomers? Did automation play a role in your working life?

posted by Mister B in Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Watch As Things Disappear

When contemplating the rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing, Mister Boomer was reminded of the lyrics to a song by Badfinger (1970):

If you want it, here it is, come and get it
But you’d better hurry ’cause it’s goin’ fast

You’d better hurry ’cause its going fast

Mister Boomer has chronicled the field of disappearing things before, including phone booths and TVs with dials. Here is an update to add to the list:

Steering Wheels
Unlike the flying cars we were promised in our youth, the driverless car is becoming a reality faster than many boomers could ever dream. Now word comes from the Ford Motor Company of their plans to start production on an autonomous vehicle in 2020! Cars may not be disappearing any time soon, but over the next decade cars with steering wheels and pedals will. That means boomers who probably learned how to drive on a car with no power steering will now live long enough to see cars on the road without a driver — and no need for a steering wheel.

Wallets with change pockets
For decades, women’s wallets came equipped with a change pocket, and many men’s wallets did, too. Mister Boomer’s very first wallet had a leather change pocket built in. The problem these days is, of course, that young people do not carry change. It may drive Mister Boomer crazy to see a Millennial pay for a pack of gum with a debit card, but that is the way our society is heading. To be fair, in our day a package of gum was a nickel or dime; today it’s over a dollar. We may not only see change pockets and change disappear, but paper money as well.

Postcards
When people were off seeing the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet in the decades before the Internet, e-mail and social media, they sent postcards to friends and family to tell them, “Wish you were here.” The cards were individually handwritten and stamped with the proper postcard postage, then whisked on their way courtesy of the U.S. Post Office. Sometimes the sender could return home before the postcards arrived, but it was a normal practice to send and receive postcards to/from family and friends when traveling. Some people sent holiday postcards rather than deal with envelopes; they were cheaper, too. Now, they are disappearing because with a click a message, photo or video can be sent to anyone in the world, no stamp necessary.

Celebrity Autographs
Since the dawn of celebrity, when people saw their larger-than-life stars, there is only one request they would make of them — an autograph. Many boomers will recall their mothers and some fathers having autograph books designed just for the that purpose, and some boomers carried on the tradition. Now, what people want from celebrities is a selfie more than an autograph. A selfie plays better in the show-and-tell social media landscape, much better than an “I got so-and-so’s autograph today!” message.

CDs
Boomers saw 8-track tapes come and go, then cassette tapes, then the decline and fall of vinyl records (even though vinyl is on a bit of a comeback tour right now). CDs were a latecomer to the music party, and are now disappearing. Music is easily downloaded or  listened to on any number of devices. The CD, we’ve come to learn, is not as stable a medium as vinyl records were, so many have already degraded to the point of being unplayable. Can you say “planned obsolescence?”

Personal Ownership
The shared economy is upon us. For many years now a plethora of boomers have accepted the fact that they would lease their cars instead of buying them. The reasons are simple: lease payments are often cheaper than ownership payments and the cost of operation can be lower, too. With the advent of car services available at the click of a button and driverless vehicles on the horizon, are car ownership days on the wane? We’ll know which way the wind blows in the next decade.

Boomers loved buying records. We went out to get 45 RPMs and albums from our favorite artists on the day they were released. And the beauty is, now that we are approaching our old age, many of us still have those records. Boomers watched vinyl get replaced by cassettes played on a Walkman, only to be replaced by CDs; then CDs replaced by downloadable music played on an iPod. The iPod started its decline when music could be stored and played on a smartphone, and now, music streaming is threatening to hasten the demise of personal music ownership altogether.

Before World War II home ownership was far from a given, especially for the lower and middle classes. Less than half of the population owned their homes. The Baby Boom changed that by a full ten percent in one decade after the War, thanks to the GI Bill and VA loans. Today more than one third of the population still does not own a home. In California, our most populous state, home ownership peaked in 2008. The Great Recession and Millennials rethinking the need to own a home is changing the game once again. How long will it be until owning a home is no longer part of the American Dream?

The rate at which things we once thought commonplace are disappearing seems to be accelerating. So how about it, boomers, do we hang on to what we had as long as we can or go with the flow and embrace the new?

Read Mister Boomer’s other posts on disappearing boomer stuff:
Going, Going… Gone?
Boomers Watched Things Come and Go
Boomers’ Labor Love Lost

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comments Off on Boomers Watch As Things Disappear

Boomers Banked the Old-Fashioned Way

A major financial institution announced this week that it was rolling out a new smartphone app that could control all functions of their ATMs. For several years now banks have accepted check deposits through their smartphone apps when the consumer takes a photo of the check. This announcement, however, eliminates the need for a physical ATM card altogether. You don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind blows. The writing appears to be on the wall as we inevitably move toward a future where all monetary transactions are handled through some personal electronic device.

That dots the “i’s” and crosses the “t’s” for placing the boomer generation as the last to be required to visit a bank teller in person to do routine banking functions such as deposit checks and withdraw funds. Banks have been discouraging the traditional face-to-face bank teller visit — the one boomers recall — for nearly 40 years now. They have trained us to use the ATM instead. Now they want to come one step closer to eliminating the need for an ATM at all.

What triggered this latest nostalgia bomb in the mind of Mister Boomer was that recently he and his spouse opened an account at a neighborhood bank for the sake of convenience. This particular bank is a little unlike others in that there are no bullet-proof partitions separating customer from teller, so there is no need to shout through a hole to relay one’s reason for today’s banking. This was much more like the banks of yore.

Mister Boomer was probably around six or seven years old when his mother brought him and his brother, with his sister in tow in the kids’ wagon, to the neighborhood bank. This visit was to open an account for Mister Boomer. The nice lady behind a desk got the pertinent info, Mister B’s mom handed over a couple of dollars — more than likely the contents of a birthday card from his grandmother — and then went behind the teller counter to finish the transaction. When she returned, she handed Mister B the book — which he was now informed was a “passbook” — and was greeted with a “Welcome to the Bank, Master Boomer.” That was the way it was — men and women would be addressed as “Mister” or “Missus,” girls as “Miss” and boys under the age of twelve as “Master.”

For the next twenty years Mister B banked at that branch. Each time he produced his passbook, where tellers dutifully recorded deposits and withdrawals by stamping the date and amount. When the pages of one book were filled, another was given to take its place. The tellers knew your name when you walked through the door, and they were always happy to see you. It was like Cheers — a place where troubles were all the same, and everybody knew your name.

Of course, boomers did not have a choice but to visit a bank weekly, at the very least. We had to stand in line with all the other people who just got their paychecks in order to deposit part and take back the cash we would need for the week. There was no such thing as “direct deposit.” This might result in lines of 45-minute waits or longer, despite a full complement of tellers for every window. It meant a race to the bank after work if you wanted to cash your paycheck, or using a lunch hour to do so instead. Some banks began to open one day a week a little beyond their usual 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. hours (known as “bankers hours” to boomers) to accommodate the weekly crush. Others established drive-through windows to increase the number of tellers and lessen the lines, only to have long lines at the drive-throughs.

Mister Boomer’s neighborhood bank wasn’t much bigger than the size of a gas station. It was dwarfed by the size of its parking lot, which was easily double its size. Drive-through windows first appeared in the late 1920s, when people began owning more cars than horses, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s when Mister B’s bank installed drive-throughs. The bank’s main branch had them probably since the building was built, which looked to be the 1950s. But Mister B’s branch was old-fashioned. Following suit, Mister Boomer didn’t use the bank’s drive-throughs until the bank established Saturday morning drive-through hours in the early 1970s. If you couldn’t make it to the bank on Friday payday, the Saturday drive-through window was going to be a life-saver.

Like most boomers at this time in history, Mister Boomer has moved along to embrace whatever ways the banks have laid out for us to give them our money. Forty years ago, would any boomer have envisioned a day when we could make bank transactions and bill payments by computer, let alone a smartphone? Mister Boomer, though, wouldn’t mind banking at a place where everybody knew his name.

Do you remember banking in our boomer days fondly, or as a necessary evil?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)

Some Boomers Took Typing Classes

In our modern age using a keyboard is necessary for almost all complex interactions with computers and other electronic devices. Yet as boomers, we did not have the advantage of knowing this electronic revolution would require each of us to learn to type in one form or another. Consequently, some of us took typing classes in school, but most did not.

Typing classes were not required in any school district in the country. In the Boomer Era, a high school diploma was the equivalent of today’s college degree. As a result, most boomers were headed to work after high school, not on to college, as only about one third of Baby Boomers received a college degree. As a course elective, girls were drawn to learn the skill of typing more than the boys since a good portion of employment was divided by gender-specific roles — some jobs designated for women, some for men. Girls who took typing classes were more employable for the secretarial pools which they could look forward to joining after graduation. The boys were more apt to go to factory or office work, where typing, if required, would be done by secretaries.

Typewriters became a part of the business world in the late 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution. Up to that point rows of men hunched over desks copied correspondence, inventory and financial figures by hand, as they had for centuries. The typewriter introduced a new efficiency to business. In that era, both men and women became typewriter operators, but it quickly became a profession for women as the YWCA started teaching them how to operate the machines. The first electric typewriter was invented in 1902 to further that efficiency, but did not catch on very quickly.

However, it took two circumstances to affect the adoption of typing classes in schools. First, the development of the QWERTY keyboard in 1878 made the idea of touch typing — that is, typing without looking at the keyboard — a possibility. The earliest keyboards had the letters arranged in alphabetical order. The common belief is that this arrangement caused a lot of jamming in early typewriters as the mechanical arms swung up to strike the paper, so a more efficient means was explored. Secondly, as business boomed, educators began to look at typing as a useful skill to teach their students.

The first typing classes appeared in 1915. The smattering of courses taught in the public school system around the country continued through the 1920s. The idea never caught on with educators enough to raise the course to required status.

IBM introduced the IBM Selectric in 1961, and quickly captured about 75 percent of the business market. It was the first electric typewriter to offer a type ball that could be swapped to change fonts. When boomers began taking typing classes in the 1960s, most school districts either could not afford — or did not want to commit — the funds to the electric models. Consequently, a good portion of boomers who took typing classes learned on manual models. By the 1970s, electric machines replaced the manual models in most high schools. This was a big deal, because boomers will tell you — like driving a car before power steering, typing was a physical task. It took finger strength to strike the keys, and they had to learn to strike them with equal pressure across the keyboard.

Speaking of boomers and typing, here is a fun fact: it is commonly repeated that the mother of The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith invented Wite-Out. Earliest versions of typing correction fluids made their debut in the 1920s, but Bette Nesmith Graham developed her version in the 1950s when she worked as a secretary for an insurance company. In 1956 she patented her formula and named it Liquid Paper. A decade later she was making millions. In 1979, she sold her company to the Gillette Company for $47.5 million dollars. Her son Michael inherited half of her fortune when she died in 1980. So now you know — it wasn’t Wite-Out, it was Liquid Paper!

Mister Boomer did not take any typing classes, ever. In college he developed his own hunt-and-peck style to type his term papers. Incidentally, studies show that people who use the touch type method are not necessarily any faster or more accurate than people who are self-taught with various other methods, including hunt-and-peck.

Mister B preferred to write his papers longhand first, then the final edited version was typed for handing to the professors. His father had purchased a used manual typewriter when Brother Boomer went to college, so that became Mister B’s hand-me-down. It was a 1929 Underwood, and served Mister Boomer well into the 1970s until he began his work career.

The 1929 Underwood manual typewriter that Mister Boomer used in his college years.

Today using a keyboard is an everyday occurrence, but typing classes are still not a required subject. Classes are offered, but no longer referred to as “typing.” Classes are taught now under the title, “keyboarding.” As time marches on, even the QWERTY keyboard is in question, too. Alternate arrangements of the keys are being touted by some companies to reflect today’s double-thumb typing on mobile devices. Still others say the future belongs to voice recognition. When that day comes, boomers who did not learn how to type will be on the same level as today’s kids, who start using keyboards as early as age two or three. Keyboards will begin to disappear and become yet another invention that boomers will have a living history with, only to see them go extinct in their lifetimes.

Did you take a typing class, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Education,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comments (2)

Boomers Called Them “Four Eyes”

If you grew up during the Boomer Era, chances are you heard kids who wore eyeglasses referred to as “four eyes.” It was a derogatory term that made fun of the lenses kids had to wear, especially thick lenses that were additionally called “Coke bottles.”

In the early part of the twentieth century, the most common eyeglasses were the pince-nez variety; lenses that sat on the nose without support. Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge wore them. During World War I, the military helped advance the technology of eyeglasses that were supported by temples. After the War, that style replaced the pince-nez and continued into the Boomer Era and beyond.

By the 1930s, plastic frames hit the scene and fashion inched its way into the equation. World War II saw innovations in style and function, especially for sunglasses, but with a utilitarian purpose in mind. By the 1950s, women’s eyewear came in a myriad of shapes and colors, while men’s eyewear was more subdued in shades of black, gray or brown.

Lenses, on the other hand, were a different story. Although plastic lenses had appeared before the second World War, they did not catch on with the public, in no small part because of the cost, availability and they scratched quite easily. Consequently, for Mister Boomer and many boomer kids like him, eyeglasses he began to wear in the early sixties all had lenses made of glass.

The glass lenses had some serious disadvantages: they were heavy, and that made the plastic frames sink into the bridge of the nose, causing near-constant breaks in the skin and irritation; they were thick, and depending on the prescription, could make matters worse for those, like Mister B, who had the “Coke bottles”; and they were practically universally ridiculed. People who wore glasses were considered nerds, “braniacs” or overall lacking in social graces. A famous phrase from the fifties and sixties was meant as a precautionary note for girls; it stated, “Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Contact lenses were not a choice for many of us. Lyndon Johnson wore them on occasion. Contact lenses were known for being hard to fit and uncomfortable to wear, until soft lenses were released in the U.S. in 1971. Mister B did not have contact lenses, nor did he want to have something stuck in his eyes.

By the late sixties and early seventies, strides in technology produced plastic lenses that were lighter weight and more scratch resistant. But for Mister B and boomers like him, more than a decade of breaking glass lenses and fighting to keep heavy eyewear on his nose had made its mark — literally.

Did you wear glasses as a kid, boomers? Or did you call anyone “four eyes?”

posted by Mister B in Fashion,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)