- The Age of Affluence
Reprinted from Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt, copyright 2005 by Tony Judt. Used by permission of The Penguin Press, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
“Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good.”Harold Macmillan, July 20th 1957
“Admass is my name for the whole system of an increasing productivity, plus inflation, plus a rising standard of living, plus high-pressure advertising and salesmanship, plus mass communications, plus cultural democracy and the creation of the mass mind, the mass man.”J.B. Priestley
“Look at these people! Primitives!” “Where do they come from?” “Lucania.” “Where’s that?” “Down at the bottom!”Rocco and His Brothers, dir. Luchino Visconti (1960)
“We’re going where the sun shines brightly, We’re going where the sea is blue. We’ve seen it in the movies— Now let’s see if it’s true.”Cliff Richard, from Summer Holiday (1959)
“It’s pretty dreary living in the American age— unless of course you’re American.”Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger (1956)
In 1979, French writer jean Fourastié published a study of the social and economic transformation of France in the thirty years following World War Two. Its title—Les trente glorieuses: ou, La Révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975—was well chosen. In Western Europe the three decades following Hitler’s defeat were indeed “glorious”. The remarkable acceleration of economic growth was accompanied by the onset of an era of unprecendented prosperity. In the space of a single generation, the economies of continental Western Europe made good the ground lost in forty years of war and Depression, and European economic performance and patterns of consumption began to resemble those of the US. Less than a decade after staggering uncertainty out of the rubble, Europeans entered, to their amazement and with some consternation, upon the age of affluence.
The economic history of post-war western Europe is best understood as an inversion of the story of the immediately preceding decades. The 1930s Malthusian emphasis on protection and retrenchment was abandoned in favor of liberalized trade. Instead of cutting their expenditure and budgets, governments increased them. Almost everywhere there was a sustained commitment to long-term public and private investment in infrastructure and machinery; older factories and equipment were updated or replaced, with attendant gains in efficiency and productivity; there was a marked increase in international trade; and an employed and youthful population demanded and could afford an expanding range of goods.
The post-war economic “boom” differed slightly in its time from place to place, coming first to Germany and Britain and only a little later to France and Italy; and it was experienced differently according to national variations in taxation, public expenditure or investment emphasis. The initial outlays of most post-war governments went above all on infrastructure and modernization—the building or upgrading of roads, railways, houses and factories. Consumer spending in some countries was deliberately held back, with the result—as we have seen—that many people experienced the first post-war years as a time of continuing, if modified, penury. The degree of relative change also depended, of course, on the point of departure: the wealthier the country, the less immediate and dramatic it seemed.
Nevertheless, every European country saw steadily growing rates of per capita GDP and GNP—Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product—the newly sanctified measures of national strength and well-being. In the course of the 1950s, the average annual rate at which per capita national output grew in West Germany was 6.5 percent; in Italy 5.3 percent; in France 3.5 percent. The significance of such high and sustained growth rates is best appreciated when they are compared with the same countries’ performance in earlier decades: in the years 1913–1950 the German growth rate per annum was just 0.4 percent, the Italian 0.6 percent, the French 0.7 percent. Even in the prosperous decades of the Wilhelminian Empire after 1870, the German economy had only managed an annual average of 1.8 percent.
By the 1960s the...