Nostalgia: how good were "the good old days," really?

July 7, 2012
The good old days weren’t so good for these people.

THIS (click the word) very powerful piece referring to the Mad Men nostalgia craze and why “the greatest generation” wasn’t ran on Gawker on June 27.

The writer is bothered by our rosy, nostalgic picture of the past and points out many of the ways the past was harder than the present.

It’s true. Racism and sexism pervaded 20th century culture, even more seriously and more obviously than it does today. Oh, the “isms” are still there. You have to look a tiny bit harder, but not much harder.

So I agree with the writer:

Unless you were a rich, white guy, the good ole days weren’t all that good.

But what they were is simpler, and I think that’s what many of us respond to when we feel such nostalgia for the past.


And in that respect, easier.

People knew their roles. Choices were limited. Paths were clearer.

I’m not saying that’s good. Or bad. Just that it’s a fact.

I’ve been saying this for decades: life is way harder when you must choose from a multitude of options. Stay at home mom? Part-time professional? Full-time professional and mom? Single mom? Full time professional without kids? Get married? Get divorced? Live with someone?

Stay single? Adopt?  Do in vitro? Use a surrogate? Change your physical gender? Come out of the closet?

Be a nurse? Be a doctor? Be a PhD candidate? Program computers? Be a barista?

Yes, all those options were available in one form or another in the mid-20th century. It’s just that many of them weren’t viable. An African-American woman could go to medical school, for example. A woman could be a computer programmer. But that wasn’t common.

Society more strictly proscribed our roles and stepping out of them was rare.

Nostalgia’s like a file that smooths away the rough edges

Our lives today are super-complex and nostalgia allows us to set that aside for a bit and imagine a selectively simpler world.  In our fantasy, we can ignore sexism, racism and the race to meet our potential, while we bask in a time when many decisions were just not open to us. Tough choices didn’t have to be made.

Perhaps nostalgia is reserved for white people. Or maybe, like me, African-Americans and Latinos also set aside the darker parts of the past and remember only the good parts. If there were any. I can only speak from my own experience.

I’m not saying I’d rather be a  housewife or secretary. I’m glad I had a long career in business and was decently compensated for it.  But it did make my life more complex. And when I want a break from that complexity, I close my eyes and step back into that simpler time.

And that’s what nostalgia means for me.

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