The time is the 1970s.
The cumulative weight of the sixties crashed into the seventies, churning life’s normal order into disarray, tossing the pieces hither and yon. Many baby boomers felt as though their generation had wandered astray on their way home from Woodstock and were no longer sure where or what “home” was.
Young women burned their bras and questioned the wisdom of marriage and motherhood. Drug use rippled through the middle class. Divorce no longer spawned scandal. Paths that once promised utopia dwindled to deadends, like the scene at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury, where free food and free love had collided with pimping and panhandling. Most of the communes, those New Jerusalems of alternative America, collapsed, too, victims of their own idealism and the inherent messiness of human nature.
The [Vietnam] war, a sad swathe of lies and deceit, bungling and betrayal, wounded the nation’s soul. A “generation gap” divided pro-war, “love-your-country” fathers and mothers against anti-war, “question authority” sons and daughters. Working class men–”hard hats,” the press called them–jeered demonstrators and insisted that hippies and freaks either “love it or leave it.”
In January 1973, the same month that American representatives signed an agreement that ended the fighting, a jury in Washington, D. C. convicted six men for a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. Americans spent the summer of ’73 staring at TV screens as a parade of witnesses staged a gape-inducing display of disregard for the constitution and moral authority. The Watergate nightmare dragged on for another year, until President Nixon finally resigned in August, 1974, and, in a moment of museum-quality surrealism, raised both arms in a victory salute
. Many Americans spent that summer waiting in line for gasoline. The OPEC oil embargo coincided with and then fueled inflation that ran as high as ten percent.
Brewers gasped for air as the inflation-recession-stagflation garrote tightened its grip. In 1973, corn prices rose 40 percent and barley thirty. Can prices went up 35 percent. Federally imposed price ceilings exacerbated the misery and many brewers switched to cheaper extracts and syrups; anything to cut costs.
The chairman of Horlacher Brewing in Allentown, Pennsylvania, spent his time “fighting like hell” to keep his doors open. (*1) The price of his malt had gone up 120%. Coal nearly destroyed him: from $15.75 a ton to $48.45 in just a few months. The city raised the cost of water 72 percent.
The economy’s stomach-turning gyrations eliminated thirty million jobs–even as that same number of baby boomers entered adulthood and the workforce. By 1975, seven percent of Americans were out of work, and as many as twenty to thirty percent in areas whose economies depended on “old” industry. The American standard of living, once the world’s highest, fell. The economies of Germany and Japan, rebuilt since World War II, outpaced the United States. In 1960, imported radios, clothes, and other goods only made up about four percent of the American market. Ten years later, they captured thirty percent.
A blanket of cynicism and near-despair draped the national psyche. In 1965, 68 percent of Americans trusted the corporations that made up core industries like cars, steel, and tire manufacture, chemicals and appliances. In 1977, only 36 percent felt that way. In the mid-sixties, nearly three-quarters of the population approved of the conduct of giants like IBM, General Motors, Du Pont, Sears, and Exxon. In 1977, only half did. Nearly eighty percent of Americans trusted government in the late 1950s. By 1976, only one third did so.
Next: Finding escape by going “back to the land.”
SOURCES: *1:”Kleine Nachrichten,” Modern Brewery Age, weekly edition, 26, no. 29 (July 21, 1975): 3.