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?

Boomers Called Long Distance

One key feature of our past year of pandemic life has been the ability of people to connect with one another via video calls through Skype, Apple FaceTime, Google Duo, Facebook Portal and the king of them all, Zoom. According to reports, people from the Boomer Generation have been some of the top users of the technology. Mister Boomer has recently become aware of some journalists expressing surprise at that fact, to which Mister B responds, “What??!!” Why wouldn’t boomers jump on a technology that helps them stay connected to family and friends? Certainly our history shows that boomers — the first television generation — embraced all sorts of communication technology in the height of our era.

For example, take long distance phone calling. It was, like many inventions, not a product of the boomer years, yet it became popular during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In fact, what was considered the first long distance phone call was placed in the late 1800s. By the 1920s, all areas of the country were connected to long distance lines (though not necessarily every city and town, let alone individual houses). Indeed, in the early days, long distance lines were separate from local call lines. Some areas required the caller to visit a specific location that was wired for long distance calling. All long distance calls were placed through one or more switchboard operators. The lack of availability, equipment needed and manual labor involved made long distance calling time-consuming and expensive.

That all began to change during the boomer years. Direct dialing became a reality in 1951, and by 1960, it was no longer necessary to contact a switchboard operator to place a long distance call. Direct dialing greatly improved access to the average caller for domestic long distance. International long distance through the Transatlantic Cable could be dialed directly to some locations by 1957. However, the entire international long distance system wasn’t completed until 1970.

In Mister Boomer’s own survey of boomer friends, two things come to mind regarding long distance calling in our era: our fathers complained about the cost, and families often used the Collect Call option. For many boomers, like the Mister Boomer household, there were not many reasons to make long distance calls. All of his family lived within a 30-mile radius, and there were no “old country” folks remaining overseas to call.

However, since long distance calling could be zoned within one’s own state, some boomer households had strict rules on when their long distance calls could be made (weekends only, when rates were lowest) and how long the conversation could last (usually less than three to five minutes, since charges increased after that).

It was the 1960s before second or third phones were installed in many boomer households. Bell telephone and ATT had specific marketing campaigns to encourage exasperated fathers to get their boomer daughters a Princess phone in their bedrooms. It’s an instance that clearly indicates how boomers embraced technology in their time.

Long distance calling had another option in the boomer years, and that was Collect Calling. Making a collect call meant reversing the charges. Since the operator was the go-between for the caller and receiver, and both would be on the line at the same time, boomer families constructed elaborate coded systems to relay needed information to a family member without actually having to connect and pay for the call. No one was fooled by refusing the charges, of course, but Mister B did know some fathers of boomers who were quite pleased with themselves for not incurring long distance charges on Collect Calls. For example, a boomer in the Army might be on the way home for leave. The soldier calls home and asks for his father to pay the charges. Once the father is connected and all parties are on the line, the soldier caller might then exclaim that he needs his father to accept the charges so he can be picked up at the bus station at 8:30, but the father, having heard this info, rejects the collect call. The operator then closes the call.

Today, boomers and everyone else regularly enjoy unlimited long distance calling, and can now place free limited-time video calls to family and friends, too. Boomers always did love a bargain, so of course they would embrace the technology. What Millennial mind would think otherwise?

What memories of long distance phone calling come to mind for you, boomers?