If you were a guy who graduated from high school 40 years ago, in June 1972, you were only semi-worried about the Vietnam War. The draft was winding down, and if your number came up in the last of the Selective Service lotteries, maybe you went for a physical, but that was it. The draft ended a year later, the war two years after that.
If you worried about anything in 1972, it was the choice you'd made during senior year: to go to college, assuming you could afford it, or to look for a job.
If you looked for a job, you probably had some luck. The national unemployment rate was only 5.6 percent that year. In Baltimore, in 1972, you could still find work — and maybe union wages and benefits that guaranteed a middle class life — at Sparrows Point, or Martin Marietta, Western Electric, the GM plant.
But, even so, if you had any sense of the big forces at work in the country and the world, you knew something was changing. The warnings were there. Question was: Did you pick up on them?
If you lived in the Baltimore region, or anywhere in the Northeast or Midwest, you saw factories closing, and you heard elders speaking about jobs going overseas. Where I grew up, generations found work making shoes, or casting iron in foundries or laboring in textile mills. By 1972, almost all the shoe factories were shuttered, and the work at the foundries and mills started to slow down. Some companies relocated in the South, some in Latin America.
New technologies eliminated jobs. Japanese cars started to show up on our roads, and all but those driving Toyotas and Datsuns either laughed or resented them.
So, looking back on the last 40 years, the changes were profound and fast. If you graduated from high school in June 1972, you stepped into a nation in a barrel roll from an industrial and agricultural economy to something else.
That senior-year choice — to go to college or directly into the workforce — was trickier than it had been just a decade earlier. Hard to imagine now, but where I came from, in the old neighborhood, it wasn't a given that college got you a better pay day. Even with all the warnings about industrial decline, many of my peers — and their suspicious parents — had to be sold on that concept.
I picked 1972 for focus here because it provides a round-numbered span, and because it's within two years of a milestone noted recently by the Brookings Institution in a study of Americans and higher education.
In 1970, according to the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, only 10.3 percent of the residents of the Baltimore metropolitan area had a college degree. Think about that.
I realize that 40, or 42, years is a long time — I realize it every time I try to get up from the couch — but it's still a millisecond of human history, and in that time the number of Metro-Baltimoreans with diploma has grown by nearly 25 percentage points. This region stands 14th nationally, at 35.1 percent, in residents with a college education.
That might not seem like much, but given where the region came from, with blue-collar jobs relatively easy to come by for decades, it's something worth stopping to appreciate. And given the Baltimore tendency toward low self-esteem — the collective habit of thinking of our region and its central city as a backwater — the findings should be savored. As a percentage of population, we have a better educated workforce than New York-New Jersey, and we're significantly ahead of Pittsburgh, often held up as a model of post-industrial renewal — "the most livable city in America" — buoyed by educational and medical institutions.
Certainly there are plenty of reasons for Baltimore's progress with regard to degreed residents: The advance of rights and opportunities for women and minorities, the immigrant class' high regard for education, and the push of the Greatest Generation to get their baby boom children to better themselves.
But it also indicates that a significant number of men and women who came of age in the 1970s got the message, that the world was changing — "These jobs are goin', boys, and they ain't comin' back" (Springsteen) — and that they'd better get on another track besides the one to the mill. We did better than I expected we would.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. His email is email@example.com.