Mister Boomer’s mother, like a lot of mothers of boomers, was all for time-saving devices in the kitchen. Somewhere in the late ’50s or early ’60s, she saw one of Mister B’s aunts cooking with an electric frying pan, and she was convinced it was the appliance for her. Mister Boomer does not know the exact way her electric frying pan entered the house. It may have been a prize choice from one his father’s company golf tournaments, or she may have picked it up with trading stamps. Those two methods were the main sources of small appliances in the Boomer household.
The electric skillet had its origins in the 1910s, when Westinghouse introduced the first one. It was more of a hotplate for warming than cooking food. Sunbeam began selling actual electric frying pans in 1953 under the name Automatic Frypan. The unit was made of cast aluminum and was a rounded square shape for maximum cooking area. A matching cover was included. The electric elements were sealed in the bottom, so the entire pan part of the unit could be immersed in water for cleaning. Sunbeam released a stainless steel model a year later.
Mister Boomer does not recall the exact brand of his mother’s electric frying pan — it may have been Sunbeam or Westinghouse — but what he does remember is that the control unit was a separate black plastic square that plugged into the side of the pan. The unit had a dial that was marked off in degrees like an oven dial.
In a very short time, it became Mister B’s mom’s go-to device for cooking family meals, especially for braising. His mom used the appliance so often that it rarely left the kitchen counter. It resided next the the family’s beige-plastic radio that sported a burn mark from when his mother rested a lit cigarette on the top while she talked on the phone — which was on the adjoining wall.
Mister B recalls his mom making liver and onions, Chicken Cacciatore, short ribs and cabbage, pork chops and chuck steak with her electric frying pan. For her, the electric frying pan was the ultimate in one-pot cooking. Mister B watched his mother make Chicken Cacciatore many times. To the best of his recollection, here is how she made her version. The beauty of the recipe, if there was one, was that everything could be tossed into the pan and braised, with little or no attention.
4 packages of chicken thighs and drumsticks, cut into chunks Vegetable oil 1 onion, cut into slices 1 green pepper, cut into chunks 1 stick celery, cut into chunks 1/3 to 1/2 bottle of Port wine Small can of tomato sauce Tablespoon of tomato paste
Mister B’s mom would heat up a little vegetable oil in the pan and let the chicken brown while she cut up the vegetables. As she finished each, she tossed it into the pan. When the onions became translucent, she added the can of tomato sauce and the tomato paste, along with a healthy dose of Port wine. She liked to drink Port, so there was always a bottle in the house. It was inexpensive since the brand she had on hand was always made in the state in which the Boomer family resided.
At that point she’d lower the temperature on the dial (was it 250º? less?), put the cover on it, and walked away. An hour or so later, the alcohol was cooked out, the chicken was falling-off-the-bone soft and ready for the family. Sometimes she would serve it with rice, but more often than not, white Wonder bread was the accompaniment.
Her cast iron pan was still the item used for Sunday morning French toast, pancakes, eggs and creamed toast, but if braised meat was on the menu, the electric frying pan got the job.
Did your mom have an electric frying pan, boomers? If so, what was her favorite thing to cook in it?
Boomers remember sipping all sorts of juices, milk, soft drinks and milkshakes through paper straws, but the invention of the paper straw goes back to the century before the Baby Boom. The story goes that one day, inventor Marvin Stone was sipping a mint julep through the type of straw that was used at the time — a stalk of rye grass. Stone saw that the plant-based material left residue and a gritty taste to whatever the person was drinking, so he thought about creating another method. He spiral-wrapped paper around a tube, glued it and received a patent for the first paper straw in 1888. Later, he improved on his design by switching to manila paper and coating it with paraffin wax. His invention quickly became the standard world wide. In 1937, the bendy straw, also made of paper, joined the regular straw and — other than a few innovations on glues, gluing production methods, and food-safe inks for printing on them — remained relatively unchanged when baby boomers took their first sips through straws.
Yet after 80 years, all was not settled in the straw industry. Like the character in The Graduate said to Dustin Hoffman, the world was moving toward “plastics.” The first plastic straws began to appear when Krazy Straws were introduced in 1960. These plastic straws were invented when some glass-blowing students bent glass tubing into twisty shapes, and began drinking from them in their studio.
Young boomers latched on to the novelty of these twisted tubes of colorful plastic, though many reused them again and again thanks to moms who washed them after each use, but the plastics cat was out of the bag. Plastic straws were cheaper to make and therefore cheaper for the rising fast food industry. One by one, soda fountains replaced their bendy and paper straws with plastic, and by the mid-70s, plastic had replaced the paper straw as king of the hill.
While this revolution in single-use, disposable plastic straws was rising, Rachel Carson’s eye-opening book on environmental hazards, Silent Spring, appeared in 1962, sparking the environmental movement. As the sixties rolled on, people in both cities and rural areas complained to government agencies about the obvious pollution of their air, water and soil that was happening at the hands of industrial plants coast to coast. For the first time, large fines were issued to offending companies, but the public wanted more. In response, Congress passed the Environmental Policy Act of 1969. By 1970, President Richard Nixon said, “A major goal for the next ten years for this country must be to restore the cleanliness of the air, the water, the broader problem of population congestion, transport and the like.” Nixon (believe it or not) became instrumental in getting Congress to create the first Environmental Protection Agency as a Cabinet post in order to coordinate and enforce the growing list of national environmental policies. The agency has become a political football ever since.
Despite the progress that has been made in air and water quality since the first steps toward environmental regulation were taken in 1970, plastics — and plastic straws — have escaped notice and criticism. Today America alone disposes of 500 million plastic straws per day. As a result of the worldwide use of plastic straws, scientists are seeing them turn up in the autopsies of dead marine animals and birds, and millions are washing up on the shores of countries around the world. In fact, plastic straws are among the top 10 things that wash ashore on beaches. The drinking straw market is a $3 billion global industry annually.
Currently, many cities and countries around the world are sounding the alarm and are taking steps to outlaw the use of plastic straws. According to CNN, studies are indicating that by 2050, there will be more plastic, by weight, in the world’s oceans, than fish. The European Union is proposing a ban by member states by 2030. Great Britain is investigating a total ban on single-use plastic straws, and Glasgow, Scotland has already issued such a ban. McDonald’s has announced they will stop their use in restaurants in the UK. Many other restaurant chains in the UK have already eliminated their use. Norway, Australia and New Zealand are also discussing a ban. Taiwan is banning all single-use plastic items by 2019, including straws, coffee stirrers and cups, with shopping bags joining the ban by 2030.
In the U.S., several cities — including Miami Beach, Seattle, Asbury Park and Malibu — have banned or plan to ban their use, and many businesses have voluntarily hopped on the “banned” wagon. In New York City, a Give A Sip campaign is recruiting the voluntary help of businesses with early success. This past week, the upscale burger chain, Shake Shack, agreed to stop distributing plastic straws in all their stores nationwide.
Mister Boomer recalls how boomers used paper straws daily, often sucking hard enough while sipping a milkshake to collapse them. Some boomers chewed on the ends, making mush of the paper. Nonetheless, paper straws ruled the day. In fact, paper straws were such an entrenched institution to baby boomers that Pixy Stix came about in 1952. Originally, the sugary-powder-filled paper straws were intended to make a drink similar to Kool-Aid. Once the company discovered that kids were eating the sugar directly from the straw, a national sugar rush was underway.
Mister Boomer recently spoke with a 10 year old girl to ask her if she has heard of the effort to raise awareness about single-use plastic straws. Not only did she say her school had discussed the issue, she said there was a boy in her class who brought his own metal straw to school every day.
Mister Boomer, being raised in an industrial city, saw pollution first-hand. He has written before about how his mother had to shake off the soot from the freshly washed bed sheets after they dried on the outside clothesline. He recalls one day heading to a nearby beach, only to be faced with a fence blocking entry to the lake. A sign said the lake would be closed until further notice due to pollution. This made him an early tree-hugger in his day. He is forever fascinated that many “cheaper, more convenient” items that became ubiquitous during and after the Baby Boom, such as plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, plastic shopping bags and plastic produce bags, did not exist in the 1950s and early ’60s. The funny thing is, we got along just fine without them.
Technology today has given us better food-safe glues and stronger papers for our next-generation paper straws. What’s more, they have been invented to naturally degrade over time. These paper straws are making their way to stores and food establishments now. It’s frightening to think that the very first plastic straws we used fifty years ago, boomers, are still out there, sitting in landfills and possibly washing up on beaches thousands of miles away. So why would anyone think we couldn’t return to paper straws and avoid hundreds of millions of these items littering our landscapes and ultimately endangering sea life around the world? Why should we be willing to accept this fact just so we can enjoy sloshing through our fast food soft drink, only to discard the straw when that familiar sucking noise tells us the cup is empty?
Mister Boomer urges you to take a personal stand now; this is not a political statement, this is a human statement on behalf of our one shared planet. When you are out in restaurants and bars, ask if the establishment offers biodegradable straws. If they do not, refuse to use plastic. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young once sang, We can change the world/Rearrange the world/It’s dying to get better. Now is the time for all good boomers to — once again — come to aid of their planet.
Do you remember the days before plastic straws, boomers?
As the world of science touched our lives during the Space Race, a vision of personal flight long imagined in science fiction entered the scene as a real possibility: the jet pack, or more accurately, the rocket pack, since it did not have a jet-propelled engine. A rocket pack was a device worn by an individual that contained fuel tanks and control mechanisms to propel the figure, in science fiction, across the skies.
The first rocket pack was invented by a Russian inventor, Aleksandr Andreyev, in 1919. He imagined a liquid fuel mix of methane and oxygen as his propellent, and affixed wings that were three feet long to the back of the device for stability in flight. A patent was issued to him years later, but his device was never built.
The idea was constantly cropping up through the years. The Nazis tested versions of flying platforms during WWII, but their plans fortunately did not result in operational devices. Various companies tested versions of rocket packs in the 1950s, and the U.S. Army was interested in possible military uses for reconnaissance, passing over mine fields, crossing rivers, ascending steep inclines, etc. The government contracted Aerojet General to develop and test a rocket pack, which the Army dubbed a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In 1960, the Army discovered that Bell Aerosystems was testing a rocket pack (which they called a rocket belt), and shifted their funding over to them. Bell’s version used a propellent made of a hydrogen peroxide mixed with a bit of nitrogen.
Testing was well underway between 1960 and 1965, first with trained test pilots, then, at the Army’s suggestion, by an untrained pilot. Bill Suitor, age 19 at the time, was hired to join the team of pilots. Between 1965 and 1969, the team executed 3,000 flights with a perfect safety record. While successfully getting its pilots airborne, the duration of each flight maxed out at 21 seconds by the mid-60s. Short flight duration coupled with expensive engineering and high fuel costs caused the Army to scrap its program. Bell continued to demonstrate the device at air shows and state fairs, so it piqued the imagination of many boomers along the way.
Boomers had watched episodes of Rocketman on TV and already wanted to fly with their own rocket pack. As if rocket pack fever wasn’t enough, James Bond entered the mix in the opening sequence of Thunderball (1965). Our man 007 made his getaway courtesy of a Bell Aerospace rocket belt. His stunt double was none other than Bill Suitor.
Mister Boomer recalls seeing a Glad garbage bag commercial on TV in the 1960s where the Man from Glad flies in with a rocket pack to rescue the woman struggling with an inferior trash bag. Despite his memory, he was unable to verify this memory online.
Today the rocket pack is alive and well, with several companies producing versions with various forms of propellant, and individual inventors have created their own devices with mixed results. Two practical applications did arise from the rocket pack idea, though: today astronauts use a similar device for space walks. The NASA device is a direct descendant of the Bell rocket belt. Enterprising inventors realized that if they could figure our a way to keep a fuel supply coming to the belt, fly time could be greatly enhanced. They found a way to pump water to the propulsion unit, and the water jet pack was invented. These devices propel a person, tethered to to the pump unit, above and around a body of water. Variations on the device include one that resembles a skateboard, and others that act like individual “jet shoes.” A recreational rental market has cropped up in several tourist-centric locations around the globe.
Boomers will remember 2017 for many things, not the least of which is the collection of notable deaths of movers and shakers that helped to form the cultural, political and technological landscape that was the Boomer Years.
Jeremy Stone (January 1, age 81)
A scientist, his pro-arms control and human rights advocacy landed him on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” in 1973. He authored two books in the 1960s: Containing the Arms Race: Some Specific Proposals (1966) and Strategic Persuasion: Arms Control Through Dialogue (1967). Stone served as president of the Federation of American Scientists from 1970 to 2000, contributing to policy debates on the nuclear arms race for more than 30 years.
Dick Gautier (January 13, age 85)
Boomers will best recall him as Hymie the Robot in the Get Smart TV series.
Mary Tyler Moore (January 25, age 80)
Boomers will always remember her on The Dick Van Dyke Show and of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was definitely a mover and shaker of the cultural zeitgeist. Mister B feels other sources can do far better justice to her importance than he can on this list.
Irwin Corey (February 6, age 102)
This comic was known to boomers as “Professor” Irwin Corey. Malapropisms, double-speak and mangled language defined his comedy on The Steve Allen Show and subsequent appearances on numerous variety shows throughout the 50s, ’60s and ’70s. Mister Boomer enjoyed his antics.
Chuck Berry (March 18, age 90)
Boomers first heard Berry when Maybellene was released by Chess Records in1955. He wrote and recorded Johnny B. Goode in 1958, a genuine rock classic. It was chosen to be on the Golden Record that contained sounds of human achievement and went out with the Voyager I spacecraft launched in 1977. Chuck Berry was the first inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986. Hundreds of musicians, including The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, said they were greatly influenced by his music. Stars of the boomer era don’t get much bigger than Chuck Berry.
Sylvia Moy (April 15, age 78)
Boomers probably don’t know her name, but they know her music. She was a producer for Motown and wrote many hit songs, including Uptight (Everything’s Alright), I Was Made to Love Her and My Cherie Amour, all of which were hits for Stevie Wonder.
Victor Gorbatko (May 17, age 82)
While the U.S. had their original group of seven astronauts, the Soviet Union had their cosmonauts. Major General Gorbatko was one the original group of cosmonauts. He began his training in 1960, but didn’t make it into space until 1967. He went back into space, as a research engineer, in 1977 and 1980. Without our Soviet counterparts, there would have been no Space Race, and arguably, no moon landing to finish the 1960s.
Sheila Michaels (June 22, age 78)
A member of the Congress of Racial Equality, Sheila Michaels began using the title “Ms.” in 1961. When she was introducing the term on a New York radio station in 1969, Gloria Steinem heard the broadcast and named her magazine Ms., in 1972.
George Romero (July 16, age 77)
Boomers knew Romero as the film director who made scary movies. He is known as the Father of the Zombie Film after releasing Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Mister Boomer recalls the film as one of the scariest he ever experienced in that time.
Jerry Lewis (August 20, age 91)
Love him or hate him, Jerry Lewis became a part of the comedic fabric that formed in the boomer years. Mister Boomer, for the most part, hated his comedy. The only thing Mister Boomer liked him in was The Nutty Professor (1963).
Joe Bailon (September 25, age 94)
Born in 1923, Bailon is one of those people who worked behind the scenes, though his name was well known to boomer custom car enthusiasts. It was Bailon who was credited with creating Candy Apple Red, the quintessential hot rod color of the 1950s and ’60s. The shimmering, metallic look was achieved with a three-coat process of a base coat, color coat and clear coat. Joe Baillon went on to create a series of metallic colors. The boys in Mister Boomer’s neighborhood talked admiringly about Candy Apple Red cars they saw, and how they would use the Testor’s paint version on the model cars they were building.
Hugh Hefner (September 27, age 91)
Boomers everywhere remember Hefner as the publisher of Playboy magazine. For many boomer boys (not Mister Boomer, however), the centerfolds of their father’s Playboys were their first glimpse at the unclothed female form, thus the beginning of their sex education. For many boomer girls, the magazine and Hefner’s Playboy Clubs exploited women and propagated the notion of male dominance in the society.
Fats Domino (October 24, age 89)
A giant star who helped to break color barriers in the early days of rock ‘n roll, Fats Domino gave the world hits such as Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame in his own New Orleans-inspired style. An influencer of the nth degree to early rock and first-decade boomers, he had the first rock record to sell more than 1 million copies (The Fat Man, 1949).
Robert Blakeley (October 25, age 95)
Another man whose name was hardly a household word, but his work was known by every boomer. Blakeley was given the task of designing the first Fallout Shelter sign. He suggested the image of the three upside-down equilateral triangles and the orange-yellow and black color scheme in 1961. The signs would be painted in reflective paint so that they could be seen in subdued light with only a flick of a lighter.
Recently, New York City announced it would be removing most of the Fallout Shelter signs in public spaces, because their rusted and deteriorated condition now presents a hazard in themselves, and the info they intended to relay was misleading and incorrect from the start. (See Mister Boomer’s post: Signs of the Times: Fallout Shelter Signs Were A Common Sight for Boomers)
Charles Manson (November 19, age 83)
The horrific murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969 brought Manson to the boomer public. His cult-control over his followers turned them into cold-blooded killers. Manson and many of his followers were convicted and jailed, and Manson given a life sentence.
Warren “Pete” Moore (November 19, age 79)
A singer with The Miracles, Mr. Moore was the composer of Tracks of My Tears, Ooo Baby Baby, Going to a Go-Go, I’ll be Doggone and Ain’t That Peculiar, all boomer and Motown classics, among many more. He was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (with the Miracles, 2001), Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame (2015) and retroactively into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) after a Special Committee reported the entire group of the Miracles should have been inducted when Smokey Robinson was inducted in 1987. He died on his birthday.
Jack Boyle (December 12, age 83)
A rock promoter who has been described as one of the architects of the modern concert industry, Boyle turned a small venue called The Cellar Door, in Washington, DC into a premier club for performers in the mid-60s. Among the acts he booked at the club were Miles Davis, Neil Young, the Mamas and the Papas, Kris Kristofferson, Richie Havens, B.B. King, Rick Nelson, Carole King, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and many more. After selling the club in 1981, he went on to form Cellar Door Productions to produce blockbuster rock tours that included The Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd and dozens of other boomer favorites.
Of course there were many, many more, including fellow boomer Tom Petty, Jim Neighbors, David Cassidy, Monty Hall, Dick Gregory, Glen Campbell, Adam West, Martin Landau, Gregg Allman (also the band’s drummer Butch Trucks), Roger Moore, Don Rickles, Al Jarreau, Barbara Hale, Heather Menzies-Urich (played Louissa Von Trapp in Sound of Music, 1965), Chuck Barris, astronauts Eugene Cernan (last man to walk on the moon), Paul Weitz (commander of the first Space Shuttle) and Richard Gordon (flew on Gemini 11, 1966; walked in space twice; flew around the moon in Apollo 12, 1969), to name but a few of the those who influenced our boomer landscape.
Which people who left us in 2017 will you remember, boomers?
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?
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?