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Women in the workforce

Of the 40 million new jobs that started between 1950 and 1980, 30 million were in clerical and service work — jobs that women often filled. Women didn't displace men in the job market; they just found jobs that were never there before. Working women were nothing new — women had worked as hard as men on the farm for years. The real anomaly in history was the first hundred years of the Industrial Revolution, during which time middle-class women were supposed to just stay home while men went off to work.

Women moved from being less than one quarter of the work force at the end of World War II to being about half the workers in the early 21st century. This change allowed families to stretch their incomes, but it caused some wrenching readjustments at first as women tried to cover being wife, mother, and full-time worker all at the same time (and men learned some parenting skills to take up the slack).

At least the children were in school; in 1950s America, most kids finished high school. This number contrasts with the time before World War I, when only half of school-age children regularly attended classes.

Addicted to energy

America began its energy addiction in the 1950s; oil consumption doubled and electric energy usage increased 600 percent in the two decades after World War II. Big cars burned more gas, and commutes got longer as people moved out to the suburbs, which were home to 25 percent of the population by the end of the 1950s and more than 50 percent of the people by the 21st century.

The growth of Sunbelt living in the warm Southern climate made air conditioning a regular part of many people's lives. Productivity increased with energy usage on the farm: petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides, hybrid crops, and gasoline-powered harvesters allowed one farmer to feed ten times as many people at the turn of the 21st century as his grandfather could at the turn of the 20th century.

The first computer

The first commercial computer appeared in the United States in 1951. The UNIVAC (for universal automatic computer) was the size of a small house and used 5,200 vacuum tubes and 125 kilowatts of power (equivalent to 160 horsepower) to store its full capacity of only 1,000 words. With less computing power than a toy watch, the UNIVAC sold for almost $10 million in modern money.

The cost of affluence

One downside of affluence was distance. People moved every few years; adult children often lived thousands of miles from their parents, grandparents, sisters, and brothers. Airplanes could bring people together for a few hours at the holidays, but the sense of nearby extended family was gone. Self-help advice books and psychological counseling barely filled in the gaps. Affluence and mobility could cost a lot in isolation and loneliness.

Because people were cut off from their family roots anyway, they chose to live where it was sunny; Florida boomed and one out of eight Americans ended up in California.

 
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