On a recent flight from Geneva to Moscow, I noticed a familiar face in First Class (as I passed through on my way to the economy seats). It was the Italian actress Sophia Loren, now 79 but still a commanding presence.
I mention this because I recently saw that Ms. Loren who rose to fame in films in the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, was ranked as the highest paid actress of 2013! Income from residuals for showings of her movies, advertising endorsements, product lines, and other related business ventures lifted her income above that of any actress performing today.
I really shouldn’t be surprised. The Beatles, who disbanded in 1970, and Elvis Presley, who passed away in 1977, are still the top-selling recording artists of all time. I listen to satellite radio in my car (Sirius-XM), and I am always glad there are so many, many stations playing classic rock, classic vinyl, and hits from the 60s and 70s. What surprises me is that teen-age children listen to exactly the same music. While I have since acquired a healthy admiration for the music of Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, I have to say that most of the music of the 1930s and 1940s left me flat; and still does. Yet today, songs that were hits fifty years ago are as popular as ever.
I thought this was perhaps just a feature of pop music, for after all the 1960s were a golden age. British pop, folk, rock, heavy metal, and everything in between thrived in those days of great invention. But as I look at the movie screens today, the blockbuster hits are overwhelmingly from the comic books I devoured in the 1960s — Avengers, Spider Man, Iron Man, Thor, Batman.
So why is it that the last fifty years have found it so hard to eclipse the popular entertainment innovations of the 1960s era?
It may be that we have too many choices now, with audiences so divided among YouTube and cable channels and do-it-yourself internet production that it’s hard for anyone today to claim a dominant audience. Yet I do not think that’s it. Real talents, like Nora Jones, or Adele, can still come out of nowhere and find a global audience. But even they may not have the staying power of even the Beach Boys or Supertramp, not to mention the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
No, it just seems that there isn’t as much that is new and exciting. This may have to do with life itself getting to be more of the same old, same old (and excuse me if this is just nostalgia from an aging baby boomer, but I think there is an important sociological and economic argument here).
My colleague Tyler Cowen reminds me that we are living in the best of all known worlds. Infant mortality, even in the poorest countries, is a fraction of what it was for most of history. We have operations and pills for almost everything (my brother survived a bout of deadly illness that he likely would not have survived in the 1960s). Things that were aspirations and dreams for most people in the 1950s — air conditioning, washing machines and dryers (most people, like my family, still dried their laundry on outdoor clotheslines in the 1950s), color TVs, multiple cars, vacations with air travel — are now commonplace elements of middle class life. The world as a whole is safer, healthier, and more accessible than ever.
And yet, do most people feel the quality of their life is better? I have a cell phone in my pocket that serves, in one neat package, as a telephone, music player, radio, calculator, address book, calendar, flashlight, email/message center, newspaper, alarm clock, etc. But except for email, it doesn’t actually let me do more than I did before on my telephone, music-player, radio, calculator, address book, etc. Because of computers, I no longer can ask for a secretary (standard for most full professors at major universities 50 years ago). Yes, I can call up my own plane tickets, read my own emails, type and edit my own manuscripts, and do all the things I once would have had to rely on a secretary to help me accomplish. But I don’t spend any less time on work, and I don’t think I can claim my work is any better, than that of the distinguished faculty under whom I studied 40 years ago.
And yes, cars are more efficient and more comfortable than they were 50 years ago; but the cars of the 1960s were super-cool and just as fast (and in today’s traffic congestion, using cars doesn’t get you anywhere you want to go faster than a generation ago). Airplanes too are much more efficient, and carry far more people to more places at much cheaper prices. But the charm of air travel has been lost for those of us still flying economy commercial fares (private jets still have some romance, or so I’m told). And waiting for two hours to get through check-in and security for a two-hour flight to an airport two hours from your city destination makes air travel seem clumsy today.
So while we do have incredible video games and movie special effects that were unattainable just a few years ago; and we have some cheaper amenities, the bottom line for me is that our cars and planes are not significantly more enjoyable, our furniture and clothing no more comfortable, our heating and cooling not much cheaper, and the hourly pressures of day to day life not less, than they were decades ago.
There has been some social progress, to be sure. Minorities, gays, and women have far more freedom and opportunities than they did in the 1960s, even if true equality remains a goal. We no longer need a military draft. Crime, especially homicides, have fallen dramatically. And more people go to college than ever.
Yet some of the most crucial aspects of middle class life — college education, good elementary and secondary schools, medical care, open public space and recreation — have become far more expensive than before. My kids can go to any Best Buy and for $1000 get computing power in a laptop that beats what took up a whole room at UC Berkeley in the 1960s. But if they wanted to actually go to UC Berkeley to get a degree, it is ten times more expensive, and many times more difficult to get into, than it was in the 1960s, when virtually any high school graduate with a B+ average could go to a UC for almost free.
And what are today’s equivalents of the washers and dryers, color TVs, air travel, cars, air conditioners, and other things that suddenly, in the 1950s and 1960s, transformed middle class life? Is the flat-screen TV or X-Box the new game-changer? If you ask me today, what can a family buy for $500 that would change their life as much as a washer or dryer or air-conditioner or TV did in the 1950s for families that didn’t have such amenities, I can’t think of one. Can you?
So let’s enjoy the blasts from the past while we have them — Sophia Loren movies, Beatles’ records, Marvel films, and such. And of course enjoy Apple’s latest toys. But meanwhile, let’s think about what we could wish for that would be affordable, really improve the quality of life for people, and make us feel that we were living in an exciting, ever improving age where life if more convenient, more fun, and more enjoyable.
Google glasses, anyone?