Was Merle Haggard Right? Unpacking Nostalgia for the ‘Good Old Days’

Was Merle Haggard Right?

Many of the great Merle Haggard’s songs were about his hard scrabble upbringing in a converted boxcar in the “Okie” section of Bakersfield, California. He spent time in prison, so he knew tough times.

But one of his classics pondered “the good old days”. “Are The Good Times Really Over for Good” was a hit for Merle 1981, and even then people worried about societal changes. And apparently, Americans still feel the same more than 40 years later.

In a recent survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), a startling revelation emerged – 58% of Americans believe that life was better half a century ago. This survey has sparked conversations across the nation, causing us to look back and compare our present circumstances with the past. What exactly fuels this sentiment? What does this mean for our society today, and how might it shape our collective future?
In many ways, 1973 was similar to 2023. There was rapid inflation, gas prices rose 200% overnight thanks to the OPEC oil embargo, and the U.S. ended it’s involvement with an unpopular overseas conflict, The Viet Nam War. Yet, despite the challenges, many Americans hold a nostalgic view of this time period.

So, what are the factors that drive this longing for the past?
The Simplicity of Life

The first major factor that comes to mind is the perceived simplicity of life 50 years ago. The rapid advancement of technology in the past few decades has undoubtedly reshaped our lives, and while it has brought many conveniences, it has also introduced a whole new set of complexities. With a constant barrage of information and an ever-growing list of digital responsibilities, it’s understandable why some may yearn for a time when life was seemingly simpler.
Economic Stability

From an economic standpoint, the 70s are often remembered as a time of relative stability. Despite occasional economic downturns, many Americans had access to good jobs that provided a living wage, affordable healthcare, and a secure retirement. The idea of the “American Dream” seemed more achievable. In contrast, today’s economic realities – from wage stagnation to the escalating cost of healthcare and education – have left many feeling that they’re running in place or even falling behind.
Social Cohesion

Another influential factor could be social cohesion. Many respondents felt that communities were tighter knit 50 years ago, with a stronger sense of shared values and mutual support. They recall an era when neighbors knew each other well, and children played freely in the streets. In contrast, they perceive modern society as more fragmented and impersonal, with technology often acting as both a bridge and a barrier between people.

However, it’s important to note that such nostalgia often tends to gloss over the significant social issues that were present in the 1970s. Civil rights were a contentious issue, gender inequality was more rampant, and environmental concerns were only beginning to enter the mainstream consciousness.

The survey results serve as a reminder that while we have made substantial progress in many areas, there’s a profound sense of discontentment and disillusionment that cannot be ignored. We must remember that nostalgia for the past often stems from dissatisfaction with the present. It’s a signal that significant portions of our society feel unheard and left behind in the rapid march change.

As we move forward, we need to ensure that progress benefits all, not just a select few. We need to foster a society that values community, stability, and simplicity, alongside innovation and growth. But most Americans feel that we have lost many of the values and moral fiber of the past. Instead of yearning for the past, let’s focus on creating a future that incorporates the best aspects of both the old and the new, a society that we can all feel proud to be a part of.

Remember, the goal is not to go back in time, but to learn from our past, understand the present, and shape a better future.