Mad Men and the world that wasn't

  • Article by: SUSAN JACOBY
  • Updated: April 13, 2013 - 5:09 PM
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Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men."

When I dream about my father, as I do even though he has been dead for more than a quarter of a century, 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 whose sixth season began recently. If we are to believe the message of popular culture, the last men on top — the men who came of age during World War II or in the decade after it — ran the show at work, at home and in bed.

There are undeniable elements of truth in this portrait. Part of the nonguilty pleasure of watching the first five seasons of “Mad Men,” which is set in 1960 through 1967, is that the complacent white male bosses are largely unaware of impending challenges to their power. It’s like a classic cartoon in which people are devouring hamburgers while a hungry lion crouches just out of sight around the corner.

But something is missing from this picture.

Nearly all institutional power for 20 years after the war was indeed wielded by the war generation (and eventually by younger men born during the Depression). Yet the vast majority of men possessed limited power that could vanish swiftly if they committed the ultimate sin of failing to bring home a paycheck.

It was often said, as the feminist movement found its voice in the early 1970s, that most wives were just one man away from poverty. It would have been just as valid to say that most men were just one job away from poverty.

In 1960, about 25 percent of wives with children under 18 held jobs — many of them part time — and a disproportionate number of those women came not from the middle class but from the poorest fifth of American families. Throughout my childhood, “she works” was a pitying pejorative applied to women whose husbands had turned out to be “bad providers.”

The world of “Mad Men,” in which executives earn enough to pay for lavish hotel rooms for trysts with girlfriends, along with fur coats to pacify their wives, 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’d had the desire. And besides, my supposedly powerless mother would have spotted any unexplained expenditure of more than $20 — which was not enough to rent a decent hotel room even in 1960 in Lansing, Mich. Some husbands certainly did exercise tight control over money, but 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 reported. The cost to men — in 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.

Men charged with total financial responsibility for their families obviously had even more reason to worry than men do today in tough times. Growing up in Michigan, I had friends whose fathers were laid off from jobs in a variety of businesses whenever auto sales faltered.

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 — half of his clients were connected to the auto industry — probably would have collapsed. My mother, who hadn’t held a job since 1945, was unlikely to be hired for anything above the level of clerk-typist.

Many decades would pass before middle-class men could hope that a wife’s earnings would help in lean years.

The difference between the 1960s and today is that today middle-class working wives — not only those in the bottom fifth — account for a substantial share of family income. In 2010, 45.3 percent of wives in the middle fifth of two-earner married couples made as much as or more than their husbands. (Poorer women with children, then as now, married or unmarried, contributed a much higher portion of household income.)

While these figures do not support the fashionable, overblown image of women as ascendant rulers of the universe, they do represent a large number of households saved from economic destruction. 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.

I am as hooked as anyone else on the cocktails and clothes, the sexual drama and office politics of “Mad Men.” But I would like to see just one scene in which a man is gulping coffee at 4:30 on a February morning. Perhaps he is also scanning a book on the kitchen counter, because he knows he will be too tired to read by the time he gets home around 10 o’clock.

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