Generation 498, 1950-1975: the invention of youth culture

In this period, television became widespread. Images from around the world were now seen in most houses.

This generation can also be characterised by two extremes: fear and freedom.

First, the fear. For the whole of this period, the communist and capitalist blocs had stockpiles of nuclear missiles aimed at each other, each with enough weaponry to destroy most of life on Earth several times over. Each tested their weapons, on atolls in the Pacific, in the deserts or in the Arctic, so that the air itself was poisoned with radioactive fallout. Each side knew that if they fired a weapon, the other side could fire one in retaliation before it had reached its target. This was the incentive not to do so, and was known as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or MAD, not without irony. As the final decision to press the button rested with a few men, there was the additional fear that one of them might unleash a weapon anyway in a moment of insanity, or that an accidental firing would be misinterpreted by the other side as an attack. This enduring state of  tension between the two blocs was known as the Cold War.

Now to the freedom.

There were different mass youth movements through this period, starting with the Beat generation in the 1950’s, a group of poets and authors in the US. Rock and roll music started then too. In the sixties there were the hippies, Flower Power, pop music, mods and rockers, and many liberation movements.

There were protests. In 1955 in the American South, a black woman refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, not the first time this had happened. She was arrested for doing so, again not a first, but this time there followed a boycott of the buses by black people, starting in her town and spreading to others. It lasted for over a year and resulted in the desegregation of buses. And much more – ripples from this moment spread out through the rest of the period. There were sit-ins at racially segregated shops, libraries and college campuses, marches were organised through town centres. It led to changes in the law in many countries, banning racial discrimination. Now, two generations later, the word ‘racism’ is part of our language. It didn’t exist then.

In the 1960’s the Women’s Liberation movement (known at the time as Women’s Lib) was triggered by the publication of ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in the US and ‘The Female Eunuch’ in the UK. Women also marched and organised protest events, including one at a beauty pageant in which bras may or may not have been burned. The concept was taken up by the press, and women’s libbers were also known as ‘bra-burners’ from then on. This movement also led to discrimination on the basis of gender being outlawed, and the coining of the word ‘sexism’.

There were protest movements organised by other minorities too. There was the environmental movement: the book ‘Silent Spring’ described the other effects of DDT beyond eliminating malaria. 1968 became known as the year of protest, with mass events in many countries, against the established elites, against perceived unfairness and injustice in many areas of life. Some of them started as student protests, but led to general strikes as other sectors of the population joined them. There were protests in communist countries too. 1968 was also the year of the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia. The Cultural Revolution was under way in China.

Another theme of the period was the festivals. This can be traced back to 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’. The Woodstock Festival first took place in 1969,  Glastonbury in 1970. Both were originally free festivals, and there were many more each summer in the capitalist world.

Another significant moment in this period was the launch of the first satellite in 1957. Now each time we connect to the internet or make an international phone call it is probably via a satellite. In this period, making an international phone call was expensive, and there was a noticeable delay. On the other hand, you could pick up the phone and speak to an operator (who would set up your long distance call).

The structure of DNA was discovered in 1962. The first successful organ transplants were carried out. And the oral contraceptive pill was developed and made available, which is probably why the Summer of Love was not followed by a Spring of Babies.


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