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Pity the Men on Top

By July 16, 2013 No Comments

When I dream about my father, I always wake up when I hear the crunch of tires rolling over rock salt — an unmistakable sound evoking the winters of my Michigan childhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. Dad, an accountant, would pull his car out of our icy driveway and head for his office long before first light. This was tax season, and he could keep his business and our family financially afloat only by working 80-hour weeks.

 

You won’t find Bob Jacoby or his unglamorous middle-class, middle-income contemporaries in “Mad Men,” the AMC series. If we are to believe the message of popular culture, the last men on top — who came of age during World War II or in the decade after it — ran the show at work, at home and in bed.

 

But something is missing from this picture.

 

The world of “Mad Men,” in which executives earn enough to pay for lavish hotel rooms for trysts with girlfriends, was unimaginable for most blue- or white-collar working men 50 years ago.

 

My dad worked so hard that he wouldn’t have had time for routine adultery even if he had the desire. Furthermore, my supposedly powerless mother would have spotted any unexplained expenditure of more than $20. The basic middle-class covenant of the time ceded power to women over everything domestic, including the family budget.

 

The cost of that covenant to women — the suppression of worldly opportunity — has been thoroughly told. The cost to men — in terms of stress, time lost with the families they were trying so hard to support and lack of freedom to pursue personal interests — has not been nearly as well documented.

 

The worst economic downturn of my childhood, in 1957 and ’58, saw unemployment rise to 6.2 percent in the six months before recovery began. If the “Eisenhower recession” had lasted as long as the one that began in 2008, my father’s business would probably have collapsed.

 

Many decades would pass before middle-class men could hope that a wife’s earnings would help in lean years. How many more families would have lost their homes in recent years if working women contributed as little financially as they did in the era of “Mad Men”?

 

So it is difficult to understand why social commentators cannot muster up more empathy for the older generation of men, who had no backup if something went wrong at work.

 

Excerpted from Pity the Men on Top by Susan Jacoby, The New York Times, April 6, 2013.