Boomers Embraced Change

Recently, Mister Boomer observed a group of teenage boys horsing around (as our parents used to say) while walking down the street. They were punching each others’ arms and running away, like some sort of tag game, until one boy pulled pennies out of his pocket and started hurling them at his friends. They, in turn, picked the coins up and hurled them back, until all efforts focused on hitting one kid. When the dust settled and the group walked on, Mister B saw a couple of dozen pennies littering the sidewalk. He had seen abandoned pennies on this walk before, and wondered about their presence. After testing the hypothesis that by picking them up, all the day he would have good luck, to no avail … at least now he knew how and why they got there.

What was surprising to Mister B was the casual way in which these teens threw away money — yet after a little thought, it wasn’t surprising at all. They live in a time when a penny buys virtually nothing. In our boomer years, a penny could buy ten caramel swirl candies or two root beer candies. Five pennies bought a premium candy bar. Just ten pennies bought a McDonald’s hamburger. Boomers were used to carrying change, because it was spendable income.

Mister Boomer recalls in his early days, on occasion his father would race his kids back to the car in a shopping center parking lot. (Please don’t even THINK of such a thing as kids running through a parking lot these days.) As he ran, he’d have to grab his pants pocket to quell the jingling of all the change, which, if he hadn’t, would find its way out onto the pavement, thereby letting his kids win the race. His father carried a lot of change, and counted it out, coin by coin, to cashiers in supermarkets and ice cream parlors, department stores and drive-in theaters. Change was good.

Mister Boomer still has the first wallet he was ever given, though it has long been out of service due to its condition. The zippered leather wallet opened to an area containing picture-holding sleeves on one side, and a snap-closure change pocket on the other. Women regularly carried change purses, and many boomer women do so to this day.

Somewhere in the late sixties, there was a sea change in Mister B’s dad, and he no longer wanted to carry it. Instead, he’d stockpile any coins he got until they got unmanageable. Then he’d give Mister B coin sleeves that he picked up from the bank, and asked him and his sister to pack the correct amount into the sleeves. Often he’d give the kids a roll of pennies or nickels as payment for services rendered. When he passed away, Mister Boomer and his siblings discovered boxes full of jars in his room that contained what was probably years of loose change. There was so much change that it brought the supermarket coin machine to its knees, as a voice from within it said, “Please wait. My, you have a lot of coins.”

It turns out, he wasn’t alone. Many boomers picked up the habit of not carrying change lest it ruin the line of their trousers (we talked like that back then). By the 1970s, large water jugs were commonplace in boomer apartments, slowly filling with pennies or mixed change. Nonetheless, change was still money. There were many times Mister B recalled friends raiding their change jug for gas money.

Today we are at a crossroads concerning the use of coins. It was once thought that coins would always be necessary as long as there were vending machines, but the advance of electronic payment methods has rendered that argument useless. Then there was the fiasco of the dollar coin by the U.S. Mint. There have been predictions that we were heading toward not only a coinless future, but a cashless one, which have been bantered around for a couple of decades now. At this point, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco has stated in a recent study that cash is still the preferred method of payment for roughly half of all transactions less than $50 in the U.S.

Even still, it looks like boomers lived during the Golden Age of Coins and Loose Change. Millennials (people aged 18-34) are changing the landscape on how transactions are paid. Studies show they currently use cash more than any other method, but that is only because they don’t want to incur debt through a credit card. Their preferred method, according to multiple sources, would be an electronic transfer via smartphone. Mister Boomer has observed millennials paying for a pack of gum with a debit card. As it turns out, this is not unusual as BankRate.com says one in three millennials pay daily transactions with debit cards. Capital One, the credit card company, chimes in that one in four millennials say they rarely or never carry cash because it’s “too inconvenient.” Business Insider adds that in their survey, 40 percent of millennials would give up cash today if easily workable methods could replace it. Apple, Amazon, Pay Pal and a host of others are attempting to do just that.

In 2015, a growing Chinese middle class made more purchases via smartphone than on computers. The pace of Internet purchases in the U.S. via smartphone is also increasing by leaps and bounds. By 2021, home personal digital assistants are expected to expand by 84 percent. Instead of reaching into a pocket for change in a brick-and-mortar business, you’ll speak to a disembodied voice that will arrange a purchase for you, and debit the money from your account.

What memories of loose change do you have, boomers? Are you lamenting the decline of cash and coins, or do you embrace this change?

Boomers Didn’t Need Expiration Dates

This past week Mister Boomer finished a container of milk. It had been the first he had been able to finish in a while, seeing as it usually spoiled sooner than the time it took to use it up. This container was particularly interesting, though, since it lasted 22 days past the expiration date marked on the side. Mister B dubbed it the “Chanukah Milk,” because it lasted far longer than anyone ever expected. “It’s a miracle,” he said, rinsing the quart container and dropping the plastic into the recycling bin.

Then he remembered recent articles that talked about how expiration dates on food packages are close to useless. Even though they are ubiquitous on all kinds of food items now, manufacturers can make the dates whatever they want, in addition to adopting the myriad of possibilities of “Sell By,” “Best By” or “Expires On.” All a consumer wants to know is, “Is this product safe to eat? And if I do, will it make me sick?” The USDA warns consumers that dates are there for “quality and not for safety.” Did you know there is no federal statute controlling the appearance, regulation of dates, or mandate on their use, except for infant formula? As Cecil the sea serpent used to say, “What the-e-e heck?!” Cynics say the dates persist because the manufacturers would rather we become paranoid and throw things out, so we have to buy more. There may be something to that, since Americans throw away 40 to 50 percent of the food they buy.

That got Mister B thinking that we didn’t have these expiration dates when we were young boomers. We had two simple tests: Does it look OK? Does it smell OK? The old adage went, “When in doubt, throw it out,” but that was because, as Jimmy Durante reminded us, “The nose knows.” So when did these expiration dates on packages first appear?

Believe it or not, many credit Al Capone with putting the first expiration dates on milk. The story goes that when gangster Al was trying to legitimize his businesses, he told his cohorts that his organization needed to invest in something that people used every day. He opined that beer and liquor — his main sources of income — were weekly purchases at best for most people. After a family member got sick drinking spoiled milk, it hit him that milk was the perfect legitimate business to explore. Al and Ralph Capone bought the Meadowmoor Dairies in Chicago in 1932, and quickly started to place the date the milk was packed on the containers, so consumers wouldn’t have the same problem as his family member.

Being the business man that he was, Mr. Capone attempted to corner the local milk market. He used his powers of persuasion to convince the Chicago City Council that dates on milk should be required by law, and he got his wish. Then he went to work trying to fix the price of milk with his competitors, and it didn’t hurt him any that with a new law on the books, he was the only one who had the stamping machinery that was now needed to be in compliance with the law. Voila! Dates on all milk appeared in Chicago.

Fast forward to the Boomer Generation. In the 1950s, it was standard industry practice for manufacturers — especially of canned goods — to stamp numerical or cryptic codes on their products. These codes were indecipherable by consumers, but were used by company workers to rotate warehouse stock and keep track of shipments.

As more people purchased processed foods in the 1960s, they began to worry about the quality and freshness of what was in the frozen foods they were buying. Yet it was 1970 before easily readable stamped dates began to appear across the country on store shelves for a wide variety of products. A survey in 1975 established that 85 percent of people preferred the Month, Day, Year configuration that is widely used today.

Mister Boomer recalls his mom employing the sniff test. Once he was sent back to the corner grocery when his mother declared that the container of cottage cheese she had just sent him to get was spoiled. It didn’t smell right to her, so back to the store Mister B went. After telling the old woman behind the counter the situation, she opened the lid and sniffed it herself. “Smells fine to me,” she said. Then, grossing Mister B out to no end, she dragged her finger across the untouched cottage cheese, scooping up a bit and tasting it. “Tastes fine to me,” she said. All a young Mister B could utter was that his mom didn’t think so and she said he should get another one from the store. Reluctantly, the woman gave Mister B another container and he ran home with it.

Do you have memories of utilizing the “sniff test,” boomers? Do you live by the dates that are stamped on your products today, or do you rely on the time-honored tradition that worked for our families for decades?