Many of my older friends regularly refer to the “good old days”, generally in comparison to conditions that exist today, with phrases that start with “In the good old days we never …. “ (you can randomly insert your own “things are not as good as they used to be” ending to the sentence ). It is hard to identify which years these “good old days” actually refer to beyond the fact that it is not today, that things were significantly better, easier, less complex, less dangerous and that it was a time when children understood that they should be seen but not heard.

I felt that to better understand their hankering for these “good old days” I should have a look back at my own times and at how good they really were in comparison to today. I have taken the term to mean a 50 years difference, and have therefore decided to compare 2012 to 1962, in a number of different areas that affected me personally.

Generally, I remember 1962 quite well.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-89276-0002 / CC-BY-SA; via Wikimedia Commons

I was just 16 years old and my family had been living in Melbourne, Australia for about 10 years since emigrating from France. We were 50 franc Frogs rather than £10 Poms. I still had a couple of years needed to finish high school before heading off to University, and while I was still too young to drink, smoke, drive or vote, I was managing to do 3 out of the 4. I had definitely discovered girls, though I had not found many yet who had discovered me. I was still considered a “bloody foreigner” or “a wog”, but true-blue Aussies used these terms more in an effort at labelling rather than any real menace.

The thing that I remember most of 1962 is that it was in the heart of the cold war, and that it was the year of the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet Union was desperately behind the United States in the arms race. Soviet missiles were only powerful enough to be launched against Europe but U.S. missiles were capable of striking the entire Soviet Union. In late April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Cuba to even up the odds. The world teetered on the edge of nuclear holocaust which ended only when US President John Kennedy out-bluffed Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a dangerous game of “chicken”.

via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile to ensure that our generation could survive a nuclear attack, schools in Australia were screening films showing a survival method called “Duck and cover”. These masterpieces of “Don’t worry, be happy” documentaries taught us that all we had to do when we saw the nuclear blast was to duck under our school desks and cover our heads with our hands. They omitted the advice to “kiss our arse good-bye” while we were down there. 50 years later, when nuclear weapons are more ubiquitous, and have become a national status symbol, the threat of nuclear annihilation seems to have diminished somewhat, though I am not sure that Israelis would agree with me on this particular point of progress.

In 1962 I had not yet had anything to do with computers, which within a few short years would start to influence and then totally dominate the rest of my life (see “My son is in typewriters” posted July 8, 2010). Though our maths teachers had told us about these marvels, my future was then being inexorably pushed towards a career in Medicine, which fortunately was short-lived once I found out that not only couldn’t I commiserate with sick people, but that I actually had a serious personal allergy to illness in others, which has continued to grow in me with time.

In 1962 there were already about 10,000 fairly scope-limited computers installed globally, each costing hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, kept in air-conditioned sanctums mainly in universities and labs, but increasingly in the business world. They were managed by cadres of high priests, who served these beasts which had less capacity and power than a basic mobile phone possesses today, and with less real IT technology skills and understanding than most teenagers possess in 2012.

via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Gartner estimate that there are over 1 billion personal computers alone already installed, with another 400 million PCs being sold in 2012, despite the downturn, and despite the incursion from newer mobile offerings such as the i-Pad. My Audi Q7 today has more technology installed than the largest computer did in 1962, and significantly more “smarts” than were used to land Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969.

There was no real data communication over phone lines in 1962, though the recently established Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defence, had already laid the groundwork for what was to become the ARPANET and, much later, the Internet. Phone systems existed, but not in all homes as they were expensive and treated with reverence. I recall that my family would gather once a year to talk to my uncle and aunt in the US, a ritual of just a few minutes at a cost that would necessitate my father working overtime the following week to pay for this extravagance.

Author: FastLizard4; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Communication with others was via the postal system, passing notes at school or by screaming across the fence to your neighbours. My phone conversations with friends were seriously parentally limited, despite the fact that calls were not time charged, as my parents believed that illnesses could flow through the phone lines, in much the same way that we now questions the dangers of mobile phone usage ( plus ca change …. ). Since its first demonstration in 1973, and its commercial availability in 1983 at $3995 (about $10,000 in today’s money), estimated mobile phone usage has grown to over 4 billion with about one quarter of these being smart-phones, and has changed the way we communicate and the way that we live.

Life expectancy in the western world in 1962 was, geographically dependant, set somewhere between 65-70 (compared with 75-80 today) with, for example, the 5 year survival rate for Leukemia at about 14% versus about 55% in 2012. We are therefore now living longer and with fewer medical problems.

One seriously important event for me in 1962 was the formation of the Rolling Stones, a love which has stayed with me for the last 50 years without wavering. It was also the time of music greats like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Johnny Cash to name a few, but I don’t have to hanker after them as I can still listen to their music today without having to understand or appreciate popular music in 2012.

All in all, beyond the fact that we understood less about ourselves and the world around us in 1962, and therefore felt relatively less confused, I have no reason to believe that these were “good old days” in any particular way, other than the fact that we tend to remember the best of what we can piece together from rapidly deteriorating memory cells. I have realised that the only really good thing about our personal pasts is that we were all significantly younger, and that nostalgia is just the sand-paper that removes the rough edges from our lives.

American journalist and humourist Art Buchwald (1925-2007) had it right when he said “We seem to be going through a period of nostalgia, and everyone seems to think yesterday was better than today. I don’t think it was, and I would advise you not to wait ten years before admitting today was great. If you’re hung up on nostalgia, pretend today is yesterday and just go out and have one hell of a time.”