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American History 2--HIST 2112 (OER): Chapter 26: The Affluent Society

American Yawp Chapter Summary

In 1958, Harvard economist and public intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society. Galbraith’s celebrated book examined America’s new post-World War II consumer economy and political culture. The book, which popularized phrases such as “conventional wisdom,” noted the unparalleled riches of American economic growth but criticized the underlying structures of an economy dedicated to increasing production and the consumption of goods. Galbraith argued that the United States’ economy, based on an almost hedonistic consumption of luxury products, would and must inevitably lead to economic inequality as private sector interests enriched themselves at the expense of the American public. Galbraith warned that an economy where “wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied” was unsound, unsustainable, and, ultimately, immoral. “The Affluent Society,” he said, was anything but.1

The contradictions that Galbraith noted mark the decade of the 1950s. While economists and scholars continue to debate the merits of Galbraith’s warnings and predictions, his analysis was so insightful that the title of his book has come to serve as a ready label for postwar American society. In the almost two decades after the end of World War II, the American economy witnessed massive and sustained growth that reshaped American culture through the abundance of consumer goods. Standards of living climbed to unparalleled heights. All income levels shared and inequality plummeted in what some economists have called “the Great Compression.”2 And yet, as Galbraith noted, the Affluent Society had fundamental flaws. The new consumer economy that lifted millions of Americans into its burgeoning middle class also produced inequality. Women struggled to claim equal rights as full participants in American society. The poor struggled to win access to good schools, good healthcare, and good jobs. The same suburbs that gave middle class Americans new space left cities withering in spirals of poverty and crime.The Jim Crow South tenaciously defended segregation and American blacks and other minorities suffered discrimination all across the country.

The contradictions of the Affluent Society defined the decade: unrivaled prosperity alongside crippling poverty, expanded opportunity alongside entrenched discrimination, and new liberating lifestyles alongside a stifling conformity. Read more about Chapter 26 of the American Yawp.

Things to Consider

Questions to be thinking about as you move through the content of this chapter

  1. What factors led to American abundance & the affluent society?
  2. What factors led to conformity during the 1950s?
  3. What factors led many Americans to break free of that conformity?
  4. What factors encouraged the growth of suburbia?
  5. What was the impact of television on American culture?

Learning Objectives and Assessment

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Identify key events that define change over time in a particular place or region, and identify how change occurs over time
  • Recognize a range of viewpoints in historical narratives
  • Understand the dynamics of change over time
  • Explore the complexity of the human experience, across time and space
  • Distinguish between historical facts and historical interpretations
  • Evaluate a variety of historical sources for their credibility, position, significance, and perspective

Course Objectives

  • The student will understand the impact of the Cold War on U.S. society and U.S. international politics
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