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 Went To Summer Movies

At this time of year, we were most likely out of school for the summer. (Feel free to play the Alice Cooper song for inspiration if you so desire). If we were of high school or college age, on hot days and nights, like a good portion of the country is now experiencing, we went to the movies. It was more than entertainment — it was our cooling station at a time when not everyone had home air conditioning, like Mister B’s family.

So, the question arose in Mister Boomer’s mind of what it was that we were going to see at the movies fifty years ago. Here are some summer movies from 1971 that may have been on boomers’ lists:

Carnal Knowledge
Mister Boomer didn’t see this one, but his aunt did. The family story for years to come was about how she totally misunderstood the title. “I went to see Cardinal Knowledge,” she said, “because I thought it was a movie about the pope.” This very adult film was hardly about the pope, but rather it follows two men who met in college and became friends, and their intertwined relationships with women over the span of a couple of decades. This Mike Nichols film starred Jack Nicholson, Ann-Margret, Art Garfunkel and Candice Bergen, among others.

They Might Be Giants
Starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward, Scott’s character Justin Playfair imagines himself to be Sherlock Holmes after the traumatic death of his wife. When Playfair’s brother (Lester Rawlins) tries to get him placed in a mental institution for observation, psychiatrist Dr. Mildred Watson, played by Joanne Woodward, takes an interest in his case. Once Playfair learns her name, he accepts her as his Dr. Watson in pursuit of his archenemy, Professor Moriarity. Mister Boomer remembers seeing this one on TV but not at the movies.

The Anderson Tapes
A Sydney Lumet film starring Sean Connery as a safe cracker ex-con, it was about a complicated robbery of an entire building of upscale residences. The caper is flawed from the beginning and ends with tragic consequences. The film also stared Dyan Cannon, Alan King and Martin Balsam, and it was the film debut of Christopher Walken. Music was by Quincy Jones. Somehow, Mister Boomer missed this one altogether.

The Panic In Needle Park
The title refers to a park so named for the drug sale and use in its confines. This is one of those 1970s downer films about drug use and its affect on people and their relationships. The film starred Al Pacino. Again, not the type of film Mister B would go out of his way to see.

Le Mans
A film about a Le Mans race car driver played by Steve McQueen, this was a movie Mister B went to see. He was a big fan of McQueen’s movies. The film used actual footage of the 1970 Le Mans race. Michel Legrand did the music for this film, and also The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), another of McQueen’s films.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller
A Robert Altman film starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, it follows the exploits of gambler John McCabe (Beatty), who ends up in a small mining town, only to find himself in a position to create and profit from a brothel. Prostitute Constance Miller (Christie) becomes his manager and ultimately, his romantic partner.

Jane Fonda starred as Bree Daniels, an actress/model who turns to prostitution to pay the bills. Donald Sutherland plays detective John Klute, investigating a case that encompasses a former client of Bree. The two become romantically involved in the process.

A good many of the films of the summer of 1971, as can be seen, clearly portray adult themes. Of course, there were more: Sunday, Bloody Sunday was released that July, starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch; Murders in the Rue Morgue starred Jason Robards, a film loosely based on the poem by Edgar Alan Poe; The Omega Man, a post-apocalyptic film starring Charlton Heston was released that August; and a host of others.

Mister Boomer worked through the summer of 1971 in an effort to save money for college, so didn’t see many movies that year. How about you, boomers? What movies from the summer of 1971 are memorable for you?