The Good Life

RICHARD REEVES

November 12, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Dallas. -- "An enormous upheaval was needed to take leisure and the good life from the exclusive grasp of the high-living wealthy few and place it within the reach of everybody on Elm Street, U.S.A. The upheaval came originally when several powerful forces worked in unison: an expanding economy, mass production, enlightened capitalism and strong labor unions. Today the change-over is being dramatically hastened by a powerful new force called automation. It produces even more leisure, more and better goods.''

That is from Life magazine, dated December 28, 1959. ''Special Issue: The Good Life. Zestful Americans Enjoy Their New Leisure,'' was the headline across the cover. A montage of color photographs showed Americans at play. A woman trying out a new 35mm camera, others painting or gardening. Men scuba diving, reading in their own small libraries and making furniture in a home workshop.

The magazine was laid out at a garage sale here, an artifact of another time. ''Leisure is the purpose of work,'' the magazine editorialized. ''The quality of its leisure activity sets the tone of any society, defines its version of the Good Life and measures the level of its civilization.''

Advertisements emphasized the same themes. Pan American Airways -- ''World's Most Experienced Airline'' -- touted its new jet service to four continents. Bell Telephone boasted that it was experimenting with telephones that would have push-buttons instead of dials. In a section on the future, the magazine talked about shorter work hours, medical breakthroughs including diagnostic machines and replaceable organs, satellite communications and home videotape, longer vacations and more disposable income.

And most of that happened -- sort of. Life magazine is no longer a weekly reaching 6.5 million homes, Bell Telephone was broken up and Pan Am went bust.

Why didn't American life work out the way Life thought it would? To be sure, there were a few cautionary notes in the magazine's 192 pages. A rich politician, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, saw it this way: ''We have gone soft. . . . The slow corrosion of luxury is already beginning to show.''

The magazine's editorial also projected a dazzling ignorance of the world around it in 1960: ''Americans have now virtually eliminated one of the chief drives behind all human effort, namely the fear of poverty. What can substitute for the old drive against hunger and for work satisfaction? Although automation releases some people to more interesting jobs, it may be that an automated society still lacks the compulsion to excellence and 'disinterested' achievement. And this may be the missing component of our continuing quest.''

The politician became president and directed American energy and resources not toward leisure or luxury, but aimed the riches of the nation at the destruction of an alien system, communism. Automation, it turned out, was not a one-step process; each stage of its evolution eliminated some kinds of human work and created needs -- and more and more Americans were consumed by the stress of keeping up, of being forced to learn new jobs or skills to replace the ones taken over by machines.

That certainly affected my life. I graduated from college that year, 1960, as a mechanical engineer, knowing a great deal about slide rules, steam tables and vacuum tubes. Within a few years, Texas Instruments, among others, was selling everything I knew for about $10. You could get most of me in a pocket calculator.

The drive toward new prosperity and new leisure was not exclusively American. Life magazine's editorial copy did not mention other countries, except as places for Americans to see, courtesy of the democratized travel made possible by the jets of Pan Am. But tucked in a small corner of page 136 was an advertisement for ''The world's smallest, best-designed transistor radio'' by a company called Tokyo Shibaura Electric -- ''Toshiba'' for short.

Most of all, I think, the pursuit of happiness celebrated by Life became the pursuit of more and better goods -- and that meant the pursuit of money. The race to keep up was fueled by easier and easier credit.

One television, one car, one house, one wife or husband was not enough for the good life -- or so we thought. More and more expensive education was needed for the good jobs of the good life. And it was work and salary that were prized, not leisure and civilization -- one result being that women who did not work could not defend themselves economically or socially.

One way or another over these 30 years we downgraded leisure and cheapened work at the same time. In 1960, Americans thought the rat race was ending, but for most of them it was just moving to the fast track.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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