This just in… they don’t make things like they used to. Well, certainly, there is no front page news in that statement. As boomers we heard it said by our grandparents and our parents, and have probably said it ourselves. Yet the question remains, is it true? Planned obsolescence is the intentional manufacturing of products designed to wear out, become unfixable or otherwise unfashionable in order to stimulate continuous sales. By now everyone knows this is commonplace in the consumer electronics industry, among others; but what about our boomer years? What role did planned obsolescence play in our lives during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s?
This week, Mister Boomer got to thinking about planned obsolescence when a giant hole appeared in the heel of a pair of socks he was donning. What was sad and a little infuriating to him about this mundane occurrence was that this particular pair of socks was the last remaining pair in his possession from his high school days. That is correct, these men’s socks had lasted more than 50 years. Mister B has lost the exact provenance of this particular acquisition. More than likely, the socks were part of a multi-pair pack that was gifted to him one Christmas; Mister B had identical pairs in blue and black. Now, Mister Boomer still has other clothing items of that age, most notably sweaters, but the vast majority of things of that era either wore out or Mister B “grew out” of them with an expanding waistline. The point being, Mister B was raised in a family that did not discard and replace things unless there was a reason. However, though many families maintained that Depression-era waste not, want not attitude into the boomer years, history has shown us that other boomer families approached things differently.
The idea of planned obsolescence dates back as far as the first consumer products, but the concept got a boost in the late 1920s. Some economists argued that if companies made products — such as new refrigerators — that were designed to fail within a few years after purchase, consumers would buy more products and it would stimulate the economy, something that was needed after the Great Depression. The idea was, our vast expanse of country had what seemed at the time, limitless resources, and that discarding things and buying new would create waste that was entirely manageable.
After the War, consumerism took hold in a big way with the dawn of the Baby Boom. Young families were eager for a new American Dream, based on an eternally-upward mobility. Suburbs were thought to be an upward move from city life. Owning one car, and eventually two, was another. That new home in the suburbs was definitely going to need all the new, modern appliances, too. The parents of the Boomer Generation bought into the idea that consumer purchasing power equated to social status. Our parents wanted to “keep up with the Joneses.”
The car industry, meanwhile, turned their vehicles into fashion statements. The tail fins of the 1950s is an example of this fashion-obsolescence trend. One year you’re in, the next year, you’re out. As a result of color and style changes, consumers felt they needed to replace their cars every two years or so. The chairman of General Motors at the time, while welcoming the news that the average number of years of car ownership had dropped since the 1930s, stated the company would reach its goal when consumers bought a new car every year.
Heading into the 1960s, some manufacturing industries took things to the next level by producing inferior products with inferior materials. While there is only so much consumers will take before looking elsewhere, new laws to protect against such overt exploitation were necessary. It was President Kennedy who proposed a Consumer Bill of Rights in 1962. For the next ten years, Congress enacted several pieces of legislation designed to protect consumers from bodily harm by shoddy products; fraud through misleading information or advertising; and ensuring fair competition by monitoring price fixing and gouging.
A look at the convenience products introduced in the 1960s also show planned obsolescence at work. Disposable diapers and Dixie Cups, for example, promised consumers the convenience of tossing rather than washing and reusing. The Culture of Discarding was underway.
So, what about Mister Boomer’s socks? It may be that the polyester blend was responsible for their longevity. Years earlier, the socks would more likely have been made of cotton or wool. Without rigorous study and analysis, we may never know. Mister B will hang on to the item in question a while longer should any scientists attain funding for such a venture.
Cars, on the other hand, show a surprising result when it comes to planned obsolescence. The average number of years of car ownership in the 1950s went up every year since that time. Currently, average years of car ownership surpasses 11 years, more than doubling the average number at the end of the 1960s.
How about you, boomers? Do you think they don’t make things like they used to, or are you happy to replace what you have with the latest and greatest?