America in the 1980s

November 30, 1979

Report Outline
Americans and Their Money
Demographic Changes at Work
Political Contours of a Decade
Special Focus

Americans and Their Money

Crisis of Confidence as the 1970s Close

It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the end,” author Joan Didion wrote toward the close of the previous decade. The ambiguities of the future, she observed, often appear more attractive and in some ways more manageable than “the broken resolves” of the past. Perhaps it is the urge to look back, to see where we went wrong, that gives us pause each passing decade. Perhaps it is the peculiar American devotion to new starts. In any case, however arbitrary its divisions, the calendar does impose certain milestones on our experience both as individuals and as a nation. And as decades change, it is the perspective from these vantage points we are inclined to study with greater urgency and purpose, if only to locate where we think we are.

At the close of the eighth decade of the 20th century, Americans seem confronted by a crisis of confidence. Ten years ago, it was the war in Vietnam that tried the nation's moral sense. Today, there is what some have called “a war with ourselves.” In his address to the nation on the energy shortage last July 15, President Carter said “our problem” is spiritual, not material, that it arose from a disenchantment with modern affluence and the gospel of plenty.

Echoing Alexander Solzhenitsyn's attack on the “intellectual malaise” of the West a year earlier at the Harvard commencement, Carter said: “We have discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” For the first time in this country's history, he added, “a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years ….”

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