Chapter 1: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

—Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

We Americans embody a paradox. We read and hear it all around us. There are those who rightly claim, “We’ve never had it so good. Things are going great in this country!” And they are right. But then there are those who wring their hands and just as rightly worry that our civilization could collapse on its decaying moral infrastructure. The best of times, the worst of times. Wisdom, foolishness. Light, darkness. Hope, despair. Dickens’ words fit.

What are we to make of this seeming paradox? How can this be both the best and worst of times? And where do we go from here?

It is the Best of Times

We are fortunate to be living when we do. Moments ago, I made a cup of tea in a microwave oven, sat down in a comfortable ergonomic office chair in my climate-controlled office, turned on my personal computer and answered electronic mail from friends in Hong Kong and Scotland. Planning for tomorrow’s trip, I check the Seattle weather forecast via the web, then leap to a University of California survey archive to glean information for this book. Gazing through my double-glazed window, I look across a landscaped courtyard to a state-of-the-art library which feeds to my desktop screen information hidden among millions of published articles. What a different world than I was born into barely more than a half-century ago—a world without broadcast television, fax machines, computers, jet airliners, or cell phones.

The network news, cabled into my home on one of the dozens of available channels, has recently headlined new peace treaties. Northern Ireland is resolving years of strife. Russians and Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, South African blacks and whites, have taken steps toward a new world order by agreeing to turn more swords into plowshares. Communism is dying. Democracy is thriving. Military budgets are shrinking and bases are closing. Not facing (as I write) wars overseas or riots at home, we get our blood pumping with movie images of dinosaurs, extra-terrestrial assaults, mutants, and icebergs.

Ethnic strife and hate crimes still haunt humanity, but in our part of the world bigotry is more gauche and diversity more accepted than ever before.1 The environment is under assault, but we have awakened to the perils of deforestation, ozone depletion, and global warming and are taking steps to contain the damage. (We middle-aged adults drive cars that get twice the mileage and produce a twentieth the pollution of our first cars.) Our economy has produced a growing underclass. Yet our average disposable income in constant dollars is more than double that of the mid-1950s. This enables our having, among the other accouterments of our unprecedented national wealth, twice as many cars per person today as then and to eat out two and half times as often.

More good news is bursting from all around:

And would any of us really wish to have braved the family life a century ago? Without indoor plumbing? With less electricity generated each year than we now consume in a day? When trivial infections might take a life and when people feared the two leading causes of death—tuberculosis and pneumonia? (From 1900 to the present, life expectancy has risen from 47 to 76 years.2)

In 1999, Joyce and Paul Bowler—a couple with a keen interest in past ways of life—were selected from among 450 applicants to Britain’s Channel 4 network to spend three months with four of their children living the middle class life of 1900 (which at the time must have seemed like a cuppa tea compared to working class life). After just a week of rising at 5:30 each morning, preparing food like the Victorians, wearing corsets, shampooing with a mixture of egg, lemon, borax and camphor, and playing parlor games by gaslight at night, they were “close to calling it quits.” They endured. But lacking a surrounding community of other “Victorian” families, the realities of 1900s life lacked the romantic appeal of Upstairs Downstairs.

In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz reminds us of the way families really were.3

Children were exploited. In Pennsylvania mines at the turn of this century, 120,000 children were at work, most of whom started laboring by age eleven. Children were one-fourth of the workers in southern textile mills. Seven-year-olds sometimes worked twelve-hour shifts, until falling asleep on the job and being carried to bed unwashed.

Families were often broken—by death. In colonial times, mortality reduced the average length of marriage to a dozen years. Four in ten children lost a parent by age 21. As late as 1940, 1 in 10 children did not live with either parent, more than double today’s 1 in 25. In 1850, when only 2 percent of the population lived past 65 and many people were migrating, few children had ties with their grandparents. Today “for the first time in history,” notes sociologist Arlene Skolnick, “the average couple has more parents living than it has children. It is also the first era when most of the parent-child relationship takes place after the child becomes an adult.”4 Before 1900, only 4 in 10 women married, raised children, and enjoyed the empty nest with their spouse—because most women either died before marriage, never married, died before children were born or grown, or were widowed before age 50. And consider the poems unwritten, the music never composed, the philosophy never completed, because Keats died at 25, Mozart at 35, Pascal at 39.

The social safety net had gaping holes. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had no social security system. Divorced fathers were not obligated to pay child support. One in five children lived in orphanages, often because their impoverished parents could not support them.

Most people had limited educational opportunities. In the bad old days of a century ago, only half of 5- to 19-year-olds were in school (compared with more than 90 percent today). Only 3.5 percent of 18-year-olds were graduating from high school.5 Today, 8 in 10 adults have at least a high school education.6

Women had restricted opportunities. A half century ago, only 1 in 5 Americans approved “of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her.” Today, 80% approve.7 Thus, 6 in 10 married women are now in the paid work force—up from 4 in 10 a half century ago and 1 in 7 a century ago. With greater economic independence, today’s women are more likely to marry for love and less likely to endure abuse out of economic need. America’s married women, whether employed or not, still devote twice as many hours to household tasks as do their husbands. But men’s participation has doubled since 1965, putting them more often in front of the stove, behind the vacuum cleaner, and over the diaper-changing table.8 Today’s men and women are more likely to share opportunities, responsibilities, and power.

Minorities were shunned. Within the memory of many living individuals, some public accommodations offered “colored” and “white” toilets, those with disabilities were ignored, and gays and lesbians hid from public loathing. If we have not yet achieved “the Great Society,” we have improved upon yesterday’s unjust society.

Ergo, however great our present problems, the past is no golden age to which we would willingly return, if only we could. Yesterday was not the best of times, today is the best of times. Seen in the rose-tinted rear-view mirror, yesterday may seem like a golden age. But even the wholesome 50s was the decade of McCarthyism, segregation, the Korean War, and air raid drills and bomb shelters. Golden ages do happen, notes political scientist John Mueller. “But we are never actually in them,” because “no matter how much better the present gets, the past gets better faster in reflection.”

In his own golden age of life, my optimistic friend John Templeton is one who does see the present as the best of times. In Is Progress Speeding Up? he concludes that things are not only getting better, they are getting better faster than ever, making this “a wonderful time to be alive!”9

How true. Yet there is more to the story.

It is the Worst of Times

We are better paid, better fed, better housed, better educated, and healthier than ever before, and with more human rights, faster communication, and more convenient transportation than we have ever known. Ironically, however, for 30-plus years—from 1960 until the early 1990s—America slid into a deepening social recession that dwarfed the comparatively milder and briefer economic recessions that often dominated our news and politics. Had you fallen asleep in 1960 and awakened in the 1990s, would you—overwhelmed by all the good tidings—feel pleased at the cultural shift? Here are some other facts that would greet you. Since 1960, as we will see,

The National Commission on Civic Renewal combined social trends such as these in creating its 1998 “Index of National Civic Health”10 —which has plunged southward since 1960. Bertrand Russell once said that the mark of a civilized human is the capacity to read a column of numbers and weep. Can we weep for all the crushed lives behind these numbers? It is hard to argue with Al Gore: “The accumulation of material goods is at an all-time high, but so is the number of people who feel an emptiness in their lives.”11

Figure 1.1 The American Paradox

At the epicenter of America’s social recession are children and youth. Writing with Elizabeth Gilman, Yale psychologist Edward Zigler, co-founder of Head Start, reported a consensus among researchers: “In the past 30 years of monitoring the indicators of child well-being, never have the indicators looked so negative.”12 Across America, children are having children and men are fathering children with little commitment to mother or child. In 1960 just over 1 in 10 children did not live with two parents. Today, a third do not.13 In a recent survey, American Psychological Association members rated “the decline of the nuclear family” as today’s number one threat to mental health.14 Urie Bronfenbrenner, a respected developmental psychologist, describes the trends starkly: “The present state of children and families in the United States represents the greatest domestic problem our nation has faced since the founding of the Republic. It is sapping our very roots.”15 Speaking to the National Press Club in late 1998, American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman was struck by a “serious paradox”: “Every statistic we have on the ‘objective’ well-being of young Americans is going north. And every statistic we have on their demoralization, on depression, is going in the other direction.”

Facing this cultural erosion, can we—without yearning for an unreal past or squashing basic liberties—expose the corrosive social forces at work and renew our social fabric? And what are the corrosive forces? How is it that things could have gone so well materially, and so poorly socially? In other ways, too, these are hardly the best of times, notes Cornell economist Robert Frank in Luxury Fever. Americans are spending more hours at work, fewer hours sleeping, and fewer hours with friends and family. “Traffic has grown considerably more congested; savings rates have fallen precipitously; personal bankruptcy filings are at an all-time high; and there is at least a widespread perception that employment security has fallen sharply.”16

Radical Individualism

Part of the explanation lies in the radical individualism familiar to us in contemporary America’s pop psychology and libertarian values. Do your own thing. Seek your own bliss. Challenge authority. If it feels good, do it. Shun conformity. Don’t force your values on others. Assert your personal rights (to own guns, sell pornography, do business free of regulations). Protect your privacy. Cut taxes and raise executive pay (personal income takes priority over the common good). To love others, first love yourself. Listen to your own heart. Prefer solo spirituality to communal religion. Be self-sufficient. Expect others likewise to believe in themselves and to make it on their own. Such sentiments define the heart of economic and social individualism, which finds its peak expression in modern America.

The celebration and defense of personal liberty lies at the heart of the old American dream. It drives our free market economy and underlies our respect for the rights of all. In democratic countries that guarantee what Americans consider basic freedoms, people live more happily than in those that don’t. Migration patterns testify to this reality. Yet for today’s radical individualism, I will argue, we pay a price: a social recession that imperils children, corrodes civility, and diminishes happiness. When individualism is taken to an extreme, individuals become its ironic casualties.

To cope with the casualties at the base of the social cliffs, we can expand our social ambulance services. Or we can do as this book advises and build guardrails at the top. We can dream a new American dream—one that renews our social ecology with values and policies that balance “me thinking with we thinking.”

What Is the New American Dream?

To counter radical individualism and cultural corrosion a new, inclusive social renewal movement is emerging; one that affirms liberals’ indictment of the demoralizing effects of poverty and conservatives’ indictment of toxic media models; one that welcomes liberals’ support for family-friendly workplaces and conservatives’ support for committed relationships; one that agrees with liberals’ advocacy for children in all sorts of families and conservatives’ support for marriage and co-parenting. Viewing the contest between liberal and conservative ideas, we can respond like the Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Everyone has won and all must have prizes!”

Without suppressing our differences do we not—whether self-described liberals or conservatives—share a vision of a better world? Is it not one that rewards initiative but restrains exploitative greed? that balances individual rights with communal well-being? that respects diversity while embracing unifying ideals? that is tolerant of other cultures without being indifferent to moral issues? that protects and heals our degrading physical and social environments? In our utopian social world, adults and children will together enjoy their routines and traditions. They will have close relationships with extended family and with supportive neighbors. Children will live without fear for their safety or the breakup of their families. Fathers and mothers will jointly nurture their children; to say “He fathered the child” will parallel the meaning of “She mothered the child.” Free yet responsible media will entertain us with stories and images that exemplify heroism, compassion, and committed love. Reasonable and rooted moral judgments will motivate compassionate acts and enable noble and satisfying lives.

Mapping the Quest

This dreamed-of world is, as yet, far from our real world. Still facing a large gap between the ideal and real, the advent of the new millennium is a fitting time to confront the reality of America’s post 1960 social recession, to identify its roots, and to celebrate the quest for a healthier and happier American culture.

And that is my plan for this book. I begin by describing the post-1960 sexual revolution and the decline of marriage, then link these trends (and associated poverty, dislocations, and distractions) to children’s plummeting well-being and to the increase in violence. Meanwhile, despite increasing affluence, Americans paradoxically were also becoming more miserable—slightly less happy and much more often depressed. Chapters 6 and 7 describe our burgeoning materialism and individualism, and the increasing rich-poor gap (the rising economic tide has lifted the yachts faster than the dinghies). These changing values and economic realities, along with demonstrably corrosive media models, have fed the social recession.

Gandhi would not have been surprised. Sixty plus years ago he warned of “seven social sins” that can destroy a nation: politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. The chapters to come will touch on most of these sins, showing how they push people off the social precipice—and how we can build those guard rails. Building those guard rails requires shifting our focus from operating social ambulance services to prevention. This parallels what cities have done in shifting from fire fighting to fire prevention. Rather than wait for fires and deal with the casualties, we now require fire-resistant building materials, smoke detectors, and sprinkling systems. Voila!, even as the population grew fire deaths plunged from 7,645 in 1960 to 3,761 in 1995.17</p>

One of those guard rails must be socially responsible media. In an earlier era, an awakened public consciousness sensitized us to racist media images of shuffling, dim-witted African-Americans and made such depictions gauche. This media reform reflected citizenship without censorship. Today, people are similarly awakening to the conclusive findings of research (described in Chapter 8) on how the media’s false images of reality impact children’s thinking and acting. As the civil rights and women’s movements did earlier, today’s new social ecology movement will prompt our media producers to rethink their portrayals of human relations.

Another hopeful harbinger is the renewed place of character education in America’s public schools. As Chapter 9 explains, character education organizations are offering curricula for infusing character development—focused on values shared across a diverse community—into classrooms, lunchrooms, and school sports. While attending three White House conferences on character education, I have been increasingly heartened by the agreement among representatives of groups from the Children’s Defense Fund to Focus on the Family—that schools should be “moral communities” in which educators work at teaching children to be both smart and good. Given the cultural corrosion and given the impossibility of value-free schools, say the new character educators, we had best get intentional about identifying and effectively teaching our shared values. There even is surprising agreement on teaching, as part of comprehensive sex education, that good and healthy sex occurs in a context of mutual commitment (a fact of life emphasized by the new nonpartisan National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy).

Finally, Chapter 10 reports a growing conviction that a loss of meaning—what Hillary Rodham Clinton has called a “spiritual vacuum”—also underlies the breakdown of civility and community. Polls, books, news magazines, and movies and television all evidence a growing spiritual hunger, as does the interest in supposed paranormal phenomena. Drawing on research and anecdote, I consider the links between faith and character, faith and altruism, and faith and social reform movements. And I suggest how social psychological principles might be harnessed by those wishing to deepen their individual or collective spirituality.

Our post-1960 trajectory therefore need not portend our future. As social consciousness rouses, more people are beginning to veer off the well-traveled road of materialism and individualism. The new American dream is pointing us toward priorities and policies that

Harbingers of this renewal are already emerging, like crocuses blooming at winter’s end. Signs of what Everett Carll Ladd calls a Silent Revolution—a renewal of civic life—are springing up.18 People are beginning to understand the costs as well as the benefits of the unbridled pursuit of the old American dream—individually achieved wealth. In increasing numbers, neighborhoods are organizing, foundations are taking initiatives, youths are volunteering, scholars are discerning, faith-based institutions are tackling local problems, and civic renewal organizations are emerging. Government and corporate decision makers are becoming more agreeable to family-supportive tax and benefit policies. Supported by new gender and cross-cultural research, many of us are developing a renewed appreciation for the importance of our human bonds. A new communitarian movement offers a “third way”—an alternative to the individualistic civil libertarianism of the left and the economic libertarianism of the right. It implores us, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “to choose between chaos and community,” to balance our needs for independence and attachment, liberty and civility, me thinking and we thinking. Therein lies the hope that, avoiding the extremes of both anarchy and repression, America will revalue her children and remember her future.

We cannot, and would not, return to the 19th century, or even the 1950s. As Alan Ehrenhalt has written, “We don’t want the 1950s back. We want to edit them.”19 Discard the patriarchy, the political bosses, and the old typewriters and beehive hairdos, but keep the safe streets, intact families, and sense of civility and community. To get there, we must build from where we are. As President Clinton told the 1998 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, “We must envision the future we intend to create.”20 To understand the present and envision the future—that is what this book is about.


  1. Bigotry gauche: See the chapter on “Prejudice” in my Social Psychology, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999).
  2. Life expectancy: 1900 data: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1976). 1996 data: Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998 (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1998), Table 128.
  3. Stephanie Coontz. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
  4. Arlene Skolnick: Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty(Basic Books, 1991), p. 154. Skolnick (p. 153) also provides the 1850 statistic given in the previous sentence, and (p. 166) the data for the following sentence.
  5. Graduation rates: Historical Statistics of the U.S., Colonial Times to 1970, Pt. 1 (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1976).
  6. 8 in 10 (over age 25): Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1998, Tables 264, 265.
  7. R. G. Niemi, J. Mueller, and Tom W. Smith. Trends in Public Opinion: A Compendium of Survey Data (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).
  8. Gender opinions: John P. Robinson, “Who’s Doing the Housework?” American Demographics (December 1988): 24-28, 63.
  9. John M. Templeton: Is Progress Speeding Up? (Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1997), p. 2.
  10. Index of National Civic Health: From A Nation of Spectators (The final Report of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, 1998). The index averages 22 trend lines, each set at 100 for 1974. The components are political (e.g., voter turnout), trust (in others and government), memberships and contributions, security (crime and fear), and family well-being (divorce and nonmarital births).
  11. Al Gore: Earth in the Balance (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), pp. 221-222.
  12. Edward F. Zigler & Elizabeth P. Gilman, “An agenda for the 1990s: Supporting families.” In D. Blankenhorn, S. Bayme, & J. B. Elshtain (Eds.), Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family. (Milwaukee, WI: Family Service America, 1990.)
  13. Children not living with two parents: In 1960, 88 percent of children lived with two parents. In 1998, 68 percent did (48.6 million of 71.4 million children) . These are Bureau of the Census survey data reported in Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998, Tables 85, 86, and “Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1998.”
  14. American Psychological Association membership survey: Survey of American Psychological Association Members. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1990.
  15. Urie Bronfenbrenner: Quoted by Hillary Rodham Clinton, It Takes a Village (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).
  16. Robert Frank: Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess. New York: Free Press, 1999, p. 92.
  17. Fire deaths: From Statistical Abstract of the United States 1985, Table 116, and Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998, Table 148.
  18. Everett Carll Ladd: Silent Revolution: The Rebirth of America’s Civic Life and What it Means for All of Us (New York: Free Press, 1998).
  19. Alan Ehrenhalt: “Where Have All the Followers Gone?,” in E. J. Dionne, Jr. (Ed.), Community Works: The Revival of Civil Society in America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), p. 96.
  20. Bill Clinton: “Catalyzing Scientific Progress.” Science, 1988, 279, 1111.

Excerpted from The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty by David G. Myers, published in April 2000 by Yale University Press.

Copyright 2000 by the David and Carol Myers Foundation. All rights reserved.

The American Paradox is available through your local bookstore or from