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​Whatever Happened to Predictability? The Milkman, the Paperboy, Evening TV?

There are some important American cultural and historical issues that haven't received much attention at all this year. Some of them aren't as relevant as they once were, but they still keep us up late at night as we wonder whatever happened to them.

by Hanson O'Haver
Nov 1 2015, 2:00pm

Lately, we've been writing a lot about modern issues in our country, be it mass incarceration , mental health, or the upcoming elections. Yet there are other important American cultural and historical issues that haven't received much attention at all. Some of them aren't as relevant as they once were, but they still keep us up late at night as we wonder whatever happened to them.

Predictability

Two cars, one house, a caring and well-preserved spouse, a couple of kids—for folks of a certain generation, this defined the American dream. It once seemed relatively attainable, if not all but certain. Go to college, work hard, find someone to marry, buy a house on a nice street, work for 30 years while you pay off the house and raise a family, and then die, leaving the value of your improbably nice Victorian townhouse to your children. Middle class wealth was accumulated through home ownership; a robust housing market meant prices would continue to rise, and each generation would be a little richer than the previous.

That was the idea, anyway, until the recession of the mid-00s made Americans re-evaluate their circumstances and realize that things have actually been heading south for quite some time. Manufacturing jobs went overseas; the private-sector unions that once fought for higher wages are gone. We're literally in terrible shape, with physical and mental-health problems preventing us from working—if we could even find employment. These days, moving in with your family while trying to become a musician or stand-up comedian seems just as realistic as pursuing an office job. The middle class is shrinking and millennials are often touted as "the first generation to be worse off than their parents."

The decline of the American middle class is real, and it's not going away. As technology makes human workers unnecessary, the American economy will be forced to adapt. Everywhere you look, labor jobs are already being replaced by computers and machines; more creative pursuits like writing the news are just around the corner. If robots make workers redundant, what will those former workers do with their time? How will they pay for anything? Today's middle-class needs a heart or a hand to hold onto.

It's clear that the American life is in flux. What's less clear is if predictability ever really existed. For the bulk of Americans—the poor, the not-white, the women—life has always been anything but predictable. Civil rights have always been uncertain at best. Until Roe vs. Wade, women faced with an unplanned pregnancy often ended up in an unwanted marriage or sought an illegal abortion, and the choice of when to have sex and who to have sex with was largely out of their hands. America has always had a serious problem with poverty; for the very poor, the prospect of home ownership was unrealistic. Extended families often lived together in a single full house, with uncles, aunts, and even friends of the family helping to raise children. For all these people, predictability was just another empty promise sold to the beneficiaries of the post-war boom alongside Campbell's Soup and no-rip pantyhose.

The Milkman

These three sentences from Wikipedia offer the perfect answer to questions about whatever happened to the milkman:

Originally, milk needed to be delivered to houses daily since the lack of good refrigeration meant it would quickly spoil. The near-ubiquity of refrigerators in homes in the developed world, as well as improved packaging, has decreased the need for frequent milk delivery over the past half-century and made the trade shrink in many localities sometimes to just 3 days a week and disappear totally in others. Additionally, milk delivery incurs a small cost on the price of dairy products that is increasingly difficult to justify and leaves delivered milk in a position where it is vulnerable to theft.

The Paperboy

For young Americans, having a paper route was once a common introduction to the workforce. The paperboy would go to a distribution center, load the newspapers onto his bicycle, and make deliveries. There were often hazards along the way, like dogs, cars, and angry customers. Paperboys became emblematic of suburban America, where safety was prized and your neighbors were your friends.

The paperboy has largely disappeared, for two different reasons. The first is that idea of allowing young teenagers to traverse the city unaccompanied has become frowned upon. Parents worry about the dangers of their child biking around town, and child labor laws often agree. The second reason is economic. Newspapers have been in a long, slow decline. Cities that once had multiple papers—often with morning and afternoon editions—now have only one, if that. Generally this paper is delivered in the pre-dawn hours (paperboys generally worked in the mornings or after school). To increase efficiency, larger paper routes are now completed by adults with cars, who are able to deliver to more people faster than a boy on a bike ever could. Today, would-be paperboys are forced to earn money through less reputable means, like small-time drug dealing or Vine superstardom. And most would probably pick riding a hoverboard over a bike anyway.

Evening TV

Cable TV didn't really become a thing until the 1980s. Before that, viewers were left to choose from just a few channels. Everyone watched the same few news broadcasts, the same sitcoms, and the same late night shows. If a popular show was on, there was a good chance that everyone you knew watched it. Before VCRs allowed for shows to be recorded, all TV was destination viewing. People would gather at their office water cooler—this was before Keurig—to discuss the previous night's broadcasts.

Cable TV gave people more options, and by the late 1990s the number of available channels was in the hundreds. As the internet became all-powerful, the distractions increased exponentially. Two people can now spend all their free time consuming media and not watch any of the same shows. Ratings for individual programs have declined tremendously. To put things into perspective, 125 million Americans watched the last episode of M*A*S*H in 1983; in 2005, only 32 million watched the finale of what was then TV's most popular show, Everybody Loves Raymond . Television channels are no longer just competing with each other for attention; there's also Facebook, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, internet porn, and Twitter. Increasing numbers of people either no longer pay for cable or never have. As online media solidifies its grasp over every aspect of our lives , the once-hegemonic medium of evening TV matters less and less.

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