America's Social Conditions in the 1950s

The Barbie doll and hula-hoop are iconic symbols of the 1950s.
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Life in the 1950s was a time of prosperity, hope and fear of nuclear attack. Known as the decade of the “baby boom,” approximately 4 million babies were born annually during the decade. An investment in infrastructure such as new roads, computer technology and military advancements resulted in a burgeoning economy. New items were on the market and Americans were excited and ready to go shopping. The 1950s culture created a solid foundation for the country and a readiness for the social conditions and change of the 1960s.

1 Family Life in 1950's America

The 50's era represented a substantial growth in suburban living. Mass availability of affordable homes and government assistance for returning soldiers in need of a mortgage made home ownership accessible for young families. Television was a focal point for family activities and really highlighted life in the 1950's. Widely watched shows like, “Leave it to Beaver” and "Father Knows Best" established societal expectations for traditional roles of men as bread-winners and women as homemakers. Women interested in veering away from the housewife role began exploring options outside of the home. This set the stage for the 1960s feminist movement.

2 Economic Conditions in the 50's Era

1950's America had a few significant economic peaks and valleys. A slight recession in 1954, high inflation and unemployment rates as much as 6 percent represented difficult times and impacted social conditions. Steady growth in the second half of the century yielded a budget surplus in 1956, a drop in unemployment and a boom in consumer spending. Overseas demand for American goods offered an additional boost to the American economy. Middle-class Americans were able to buy appliances, cars and TVs, once reserved for the upper class. A drop in the cost of single-family homes meant a rise in home ownership.

3 Racial Issues and the 1950's Culture

The 1950s marked a dramatic change in policies, social conditions and laws connected to civil rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1955, African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama staged a 13-month bus boycott to demonstrate the need for desegregation in public transportation. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 resulted in the creation of a civil rights division at the federal level and further protection of voting rights for all citizens.

4 Comformity in the 1950's and the Cold War

Tension between the Soviet Union and U.S. resulted in widespread fear of nuclear attack. Panic about the spread of communism was deepened with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. Many middle class families built fallout shelters in hopes of surviving an atomic bomb. Schools taught children what to do in the event of an attack and literature about survival tactics was widely distributed. The government hoped that encouraging people to prepare would increase public support for investment in additional U.S. nuclear weapons.

Dr. Kelly Meier earned her doctorate from Minnesota State Mankato in Educational Leadership. She is the author and co-author of 12 books and serves as a consultant in K-12 and higher education. Dr. Meier is is a regular contributor for The Equity Network and has worked in education for more than 30 years. She has numerous publications with Talico, Inc., DynaTEAM Consulting, Inc. and Kinect Education Group.