Once upon a time, or so it is said, America was a place with lots of upward but little downward mobility. In the really old, pre—Civil War days you could start out splitting rails, head west, make a success of yourself on the frontier, and perhaps even wind up as president. In the relatively recent, post—World War II expansion you could do well by landing a blue-collar job in a unionized manufacturing industry or a white-collar job at a large, stable American corporation such as IBM, AT&T, or General Electric—which offered job security, high salaries, and long, steady career ladders.
There was always as much mythology as truth to this image of America. Lighting out for the West was expensive; covered wagons did not come cheap. More generally, although many terms could be used to describe economic life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "stable" and "secure" are not among them.
But there was considerable truth to the image as well, particularly after World War II. Regardless of education level or family background, many Americans who valued stability and security really did have the chance to grasp it; jobs with "a future"—that is, with steadily rising wages and solid retirement plans—were plentiful. And even for many of those who were fired, the economic risks were fairly low: the unemployment rate for married men during the 1960s averaged 2.7 percent, and finding a new job was a relatively simple matter. During the first decades following World War II, to the astonishment of interviewing sociologists, a majority of Americans began to define themselves as middle-class.
This post—World War II period stands as a reference point in our popular economic history—a gold standard for rapid growth and shared prosperity. It lingers in our national memory, and remains an important source of confidence in the unity of our culture and the awesome power of our economy. But although it engendered our current economic expectations, our sense of "the way things ought to be," in reality the postwar era was probably an aberration, a confluence of events never before seen in our history and unlikely to be seen again.
Most obviously, it was an era defined by the isolation of America's continental market from the devastation of World War II. In the early postwar decades foreign competition exerted virtually no pressure on our economy. (In 1965, for example, imports of automobiles and auto parts came to less than $1 billion—about a fortieth of what they are today, after adjusting for inflation.) At the same time, domestic manufacturers benefited from an enormous pent-up demand for mass-produced goods: cars, washing machines, commercial aircraft, refrigerators, lawn mowers, television sets, and so on. New highways gave rise to new suburbs, and to a resulting construction boom.