History doesn’t always fit into a neat decimal system, but it’s a common exercise in mental shorthand to think of “the Gay 90s”, “the Roaring 20s” or “the Nifty 50s”. The generalization can have the effect of sterotyping a span of time, and like all stereotyping it can unfairly miss a lot of subtlety and complexity. The decade of the 1960s (which somehow never received a distinctive nickname) is usually considered a time when America and the world careened from social stability to generalized rebellion and from optimism to anxiety about the future. That future came very quickly, as described in the book “Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class”.
The author is Dr. Jefferson Cowie, associate professor of history in Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. In his blog, Cowie indicates that “Stayin’ Alive” has been recognized as one of the best books of 2010.
“Stayin’ Alive” offers no simplistic division of decades but rather is a broad study of the times with precise concentration on the conditions of labor in America in the 70s. “This book is actually about what happens in the middle of that decade.” explained Dr. Cowie in a lecture at the ILR School that was recorded for broadcast by C-Span. “This book really revolves around the middle decade period where I think history and politics and culture turn.” The political history is a powerful story in itself, featuring the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter emerging from a Democratic Party in disarray to win the presidency and George Wallace’s right-wing populism gaining appeal among Northern industrial workers. “The 1970s might appropriately be thought of as half post-1960s and half pre-1980s,” writes Cowie, “but they were also more than that — they served as a bridge between epochs.” And the changes can be felt to this day.
As the United States entered the 70s much of its industrial production was still performed by union labor. But both unrest among younger workers (sometimes a spillover from the counter-culture movements), emergent globalization and an aging and hidebound leadership in the labor movement hastened the undoing of labor’s advances since the days of FDR’s New Deal. The shifting sifting political, economic and cultural landscapes could be observed in popular culture, and Cowie pays as close attention to Archie Bunker as he does to Dewey Burton, the real-life auto worker who was the “typical worker” reported on over the years by The New York Times as his loyalty to the Democratic Party was strained. He was, briefly, a Wallace supporter before voting for Ronald Reagan. (Burton now lives in comfortable retirement in Florida).
Jeff Cowie’s book could have a sound-track added. He references the songs of Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard, Devo’s “Jocko Homo” and devotes an entire chapter to Bruce Springsteen and “Born in the U.S.A.”
The song’s story line, buried beneath the pounding music and the patriotic hollers of the chorus, explores the muffled tale of a socially-isolated working-class man, burning within the despair of deindustrialized, post-Vietnam America: a social history of white working-class identity, unmoored from the elements that once defined it.
A history of the recent past must bring things up to time present, and Cowie writes about the recent economic meltdowns, persistent high unemployment and emergence of a “new working class”, more involved in retail sales than in manufacturing. “But there is no discursive, political place for [today’s workers] comparable to the classic concept of the industrial working class.”