Boomers Counted Down the Days

As boomer children, countdowns of various sorts were practically an everyday occurrence. There were seasonal countdowns throughout the school year; as the Space Race got going, the “T-minus …” phrase of the NASA countdown clock became household words; and Top 40 countdowns on your transistor radio played daily. The whole concept of countdowns is on Mister Boomer’s brain this week because a co-worker gave him a countdown clock to install as his screensaver. The countdown has now begun at his workplace for the time next year that Mister B joins the ever-growing number of boomers who have retired. Be that as it may, let’s explore what countdowns meant to boomers forty, fifty, or sixty years ago.

At the start of the school year, the students who couldn’t wait for the next summer vacation might set themselves up a countdown calendar until the next summer vacation, but for most boomers, countdowns became necessary as the holiday season drew near. About this time each year, countdowns cropped up as Thanksgiving approached. In Mister Boomer’s experience, while many boomers enjoyed Thanksgiving, it was more important as the beginning of the countdown to Christmas. Sometime between the Sunday following Thanksgiving and the first Sunday in December marked the beginning of the Advent Calendar for religious households. The Advent Calendar was itself a countdown device, in which the dates varied year to year and also might be of a different duration based on religious denomination. The point is, boomer kids were counting down the days to Christmas, when they could open their gifts from Santa Claus.

Of course, boomers watched the end-of-year countdowns on their family’s TV. For many years that countdown was delivered by Guy Lombardo, until boomer families could afford a second TV in their homes or finally convince their parents to ditch Mr. Auld Lang Syne in favor of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. A good many boomers watched that countdown for decades.

The drudgery of winter school classes after the holidays necessitated a reminder countdown of the days until summer vacation. Winter or spring breaks did little to replace the ultimate school year countdown to come. By the time May arrived, many a boomer “X’d” out days on a calendar that counted down the time until there would be “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” As boomers grew, there was the countdown until graduation day. For many more boomers than generations before them, that meant resetting the school countdown clock with college attendance.

When it came time to launch rockets into space, NASA’s live narrated countdowns amped up the excitement of boomers like Mister B, who watched intently on a black and white TV set rolled into his classroom. The phrase, “5,4,2,1… blast off!” became commonplace, especially among boomer boys. NASA preferred “lift off” to “blast off,” as there is a technical definition difference involving using a rocket to “blast off” under its own power as opposed to “lift off” of a manned capsule into space on top of a rocket. NASA used countdowns even before the first manned space flights. In Mister Boomer’s research on the subject, as far as anyone seems to recall, the use of countdowns to mark the launch of rockets was first seen in science fiction literature somewhere in the 1920s. It may be interesting to note that audible countdowns were not employed in the early days of German rocketry prior to and during WWII, then later in the Soviet space program. Instead, silent counts were observed via a clock. The Soviet Union did adopt them after a time, possibly as a way to interest the Russian public in their early besting of the Americans’ space progress.

Countdowns were a regular thing in boomer-era popular music. Boomers listening to their favorite radio stations could hear countdowns of the Top 40, or a DJ could play a countdown of the most requested songs of the week. In 1970, when the last boomers were just six years old, Casey Kasem began airing American Top 40 as a music countdown radio show. The Billboard charts were used to create the countdown lists. The countdown show still exists, with Ryan Seacrest as the host.

Countdowns mark the passage of time, shorter or longer term. It seems only right that boomers, who have witnessed so many countdowns through the years, have faced or now face the countdown to mark the end of their full-time working lives.

How about you, boomers? What did countdowns mean in your lives? Was the countdown to Christmas the most important thing in your life at the time?

Boomers Lived Through Years of Planned Obsolescence

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?