5 Lessons We Can Learn from the 1950s

The issues families faced in the 50s are not so different from our current problems.


Recently I've been reading some history about the 1950s, including the exhaustive book “The Fifties” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. We certainly lived in a different world back then, when cars had fins, men went off to work, women stayed home and children were chided not for texting too much but for watching too much TV.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice: some of the themes running through that decade a half century ago are relevant in 2013. Here are five lessons from the 1950s that can still inform us, even today:

1. You have to believe in yourself. Alfred Kinsey was the entomologist who transformed himself into a sex researcher. He was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike, until he was forced to give up his teaching job and lost financial support for his research from the Rockefeller Foundation. Through it all Kinsey believed he was doing something important, and he just kept on conducting his studies. He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where he tended his garden, helped raise his children and was married to the same woman for over 30 years. Ultimately his work was recognized. The “Kinsey Reports” were bestselling books, his work won high regard among many in the scientific community and he was credited with contributing to women's progress in the 20th century. The lesson? You must believe in yourself for others to believe in you.

2. It pays to be an optimist. William Levitt, Kemmons Wilson and Ray Kroc all made their fortunes in the 1950s – sometimes in the face of critics who berated them – because they felt confident betting on the future of the American consumer. Today Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are doing the same thing. It's just that instead of building houses, motels and hamburger stands, the new entrepreneurs are building out the Internet world. But they're still plenty optimistic about the future of the American consumer.

3. Media bias is nothing new. The 1950s may have seen the usual East coast liberal bias in the voice of Edward R. Murrow on CBS, and from the pages of the New York Times. But, according to David Halberstam, Time magazine under Henry Luce was the unofficial mouthpiece of the Republican party, and flagrant media bias came from the Chicago Tribune under publisher Robert McCormick. The newspaper was the Fox News of its day, opposing the New Deal, pushing post-war isolationism and supporting the anticommunism of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Also, as TV began to take over from print, people began to realize that news in the media was becoming less about the news and more about its entertainment value.

4. Fighting over politics is as American as apple pie. In the 1950s, establishment politicians were eager to take over the reigns of world leadership from the old British empire, but midwestern isolationists wanted to forget about Europe and go about their business. In a precursor to Vietnam, America was pulled into the Korean war, with some people even advocating the use of atomic weapons, until General MacArthur was fired and an uneasy stalemate was reached. The Cold War was beginning, and Joseph McCarthy tore the nation apart with his accusations of communist activities in government and the arts. All this makes our current battles over the budget, health care, Afghanistan and the Middle East seem like just another chapter in the ongoing American debate about policies and politics.

5. Invest in the new, not the old. In the 1950s, with people fleeing to the suburbs, it did not pay to invest in inner-city real estate, nor was it profitable to buy stock in railroads, steel or textiles. The "next big thing" at the time – the investments that were to make money – were packaged goods companies that sold products to baby boomers, car companies that were rolling out new models every year and office product companies like Xerox and IBM. Similarly, today you don't want to invest in declining industries like newspapers, automobiles, chemicals or old-line department stores like Sears or J.C. Penny. You're better off focusing on the future in the form of technology and the Internet, or perhaps in those same baby boomers by investing in finance, insurance and health care.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.