The 1950s Business and the Economy: Overview
The American economy experienced a shift during the 1950s that created more income for more Americans than ever before. Though during the early 1950s the American economy was negatively affected by inflation—prices were rising, currency was losing its value, and a recession was at hand—these problems were relatively short-lived. By the mid-1950s, the nation began to enjoy the fruits of economic boom and prosperity. The robust economy gave rise to the American middle class.
The masses of Americans who grown up during Depression-era poverty and sacrificed for their country during World War II were now marrying, starting families, and entering the workforce. Furthermore, the GI Bill, which offered government funding for veterans attending college, allowed those who otherwise could not afford to continue their education to earn college degrees and win better-paying jobs.
During the decade, small businesses started and grew, while major corporations were merging, thus becoming larger, more profitable, and more powerful. Companies big and small needed workers, both skilled and unskilled, to manage their assets, work their assembly lines, or sell their products to the public. Jobs were readily available, and they were filled by a generation of eager-to-work veterans.
Additionally, more and more workers joined labor unions. These unions negotiated with management for pay raises, better working conditions, and health and retirement benefits. The presence and influence ofPage 27 | Top of Article unions was a key factor in allowing America's blue-collar workers to enter the middle class. A man who toiled on a factory assembly line or drove a bus or a truck for a living now had sufficient income to purchase his own home and car, not to mention the latest household appliances for his wife (who, during this prefeminist era, usually remained home and raised the children). He could take his family on vacations and save some of his weekly paychecks. However, some of the unions that represented the working man—most notoriously the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—were corrupt.
Travel became an increasingly popular pastime for many. More and more Americans drove by car long distances or boarded airplanes to fly cross-country or across the ocean. The United States was becoming a nation on wheels with a new roadside culture, and federal funds were allocated to improve the then-inadequate national highway system.
Television sets were fast becoming the centerpieces of American living rooms. With a nudge from TV advertising and its ceaseless pitches to purchase everything from beer to bathroom tissue, Americans increasingly became consumers. Of course, Americans also had purchased things in previous decades. But during the 1950s, more people had enough money to buy nonessential items, and those who didn't were making their major purchases on credit. At the same time, the commercial banking industry expanded, with insurance, trust, and holding companies also entering the money business. With the ready availability of jobs and credit, the 1950s offered most people the ability to purchase all sorts of goods and services for their material comfort.