What Was a “Normal Person” 50 Years Ago?

If you spend much time on Twitter, you may have seen the following cartoon or something like it:

The implication here is that many of the social beliefs we hold today are very different from what people held 50 years ago, and (possibly, therefore) it’s not radical to still hold those beliefs today. The Tweet above doesn’t specify exactly what those beliefs are, but we can use survey data to dig into what those might be. Thankfully, one of the greatest social surveys out there was first conducted in 1972, exactly 50 years ago: the General Social Survey.

What exactly did a normal person believe around 1972, according to the GSS?

Let me first use a question from Gallup that stretches back even further: approval of interracial marriage (defined here as marriage between whites and non-whites). The question goes back to the late 1950s, but in 1973 (almost 50 years ago) just 29% of all adults and just 25% of white adults said they approved of interracial marriage. Today, of course, the numbers are radically different: 94% of adults say they approve of interracial marriage, including 93% of adults in the US South (as late as 1991, just 33% of Southerners approved in this survey).

The GSS asked a related but slightly different question in 1972: whether someone favors a law against interracial marriage. Perhaps surprisingly, this question gets a very different answer: in 1972, only 36% of non-blacks approved of such a law. And the rest weren’t uncertain: 61% said they opposed such a law. In other words, we might say that many adults had a certain libertarian streak on this issue: while they didn’t personally approve of interracial marriage, they didn’t want the state to prohibit it.

For all of these questions, it’s hard to distinguish between whether beliefs actually changed or it became less socially acceptable to hold certain views, or at least to express them to a pollster. It’s an important possible effect, but one that we can’t really isolate in this data.

So, what did a “normal person” think about interracial marriage 50 years ago? While they told Gallup pollsters that they didn’t approve of it, they told the GSS that they opposed laws against interracial marriage.

While the question of interracial marriage is mostly settled now (and even hinting that it should be changed can draw severe backlash), the question of non-heterosexual marriage is still controversial. While we don’t have data going back to 1972, the GSS does have a question about whether same-sex sexual relations are acceptable from 1973. In that year, only 11% of adults said it was “not wrong at all,” whereas today 61% of adults say this. In 1973, 70% of adults said it was “always wrong,” while today on 27% percent of adults say it’s always wrong (the decline starts in the early 1990s).

On the question of gay marriage, it seems that there wasn’t as much of a libertarian perspective. When the GSS first asked whether homosexuals should have the right to marry in 1988, just 11% of adults agreed, with 68% saying they disagreed (with the bulk saying they strongly disagreed). That’s very similar to the number that said same-sex relations were always wrong in 1988 (75%). For gay marriage, unlike interracial marriage, a “normal person” in the past disapproved of the activity and wanted it to be illegal.

Moving to a slightly different question about marital relations, the GSS has asked a number of questions about the role of women in a marriage, specifically about whether women should work. One question that was asked in 1972 is whether respondents approved of married women working. Even back in 1972, a majority of adults approved of this: 66% of all adults, including 63% of men! The GSS stopped asking this question in 1998, but while support had increased in hadn’t radically changed, with just 81% approving.

It seems then that a “normal person” in 1972 was in favor of married women working. The GSS does have a slightly more nuanced question that they started asking in 1977: whether it was better for a man to work and a woman to stay home. On this question, 65% said they agreed or strongly agreed in 1977, whereas only 22% say so today.

Based on these two questions combined, we might say that a “normal person” 50 years ago approved of woman working, but thought it was better if only the man did. Not so today, with 78% disagreeing. And in 1977, it seems that one of the main concerns was that young children would suffer if their mother worked, something that 2/3 of adults said in 1977, including 62% of women.

Finally, let’s look at a very different topic: marijuana. In 1973, 79% of adults in the US said marijuana should be illegal. Just 19% said it should be legalized in 1973, and this number doesn’t really start to change until the early 1990s. Today, there is a strong majority in favor of legalization. The GSS last asked this in 2018, when 61% approved of legalization. But more recent surveys, such as one from the Pew Research Center in 2021, find that only about 8% of Americans still want marijuana to be illegal. 60% favor full legalization, with another 31% favoring only medical marijuana.

With data from the GSS, we can use the marijuana question to dig into another important aspect of these trends on social issues: is this just a case of older generations dying out? To some extent, yes, but not completely. For example, Pew Research also used the GSS data to look at trends on marijuana legalization within each generation. For every generation, the trend is towards more approval of legalizing marijuana. In other words, even as the same people get older, they are changing their views. It is not just a case of younger generations replacing the older ones, though this matters too. For example, while Millennials are the adult generation most in favor of marijuana legalization, millennials themselves have become more supportive of legalization, and quite significantly: from just 34% in 2006 to 69% in 2014.

How can we sum all this up? In brief, a “normal person” 50 years ago compared to today:

  • Used to disapprove of interracial marriage, but didn’t want it to be illegal — now, they approve of it
  • Used to disapprove of same-sex sexual relations, and also wanted same-sex marriage to be illegal — both of these views have changed
  • Approved of married women working, though worried about the effects of mothers working on young children — now, a “normal person” doesn’t just approve of woman working, they don’t differentiate between whether it’s better for a man or woman to work
  • Used to disapprove of legal marijuana — now, very much in favor of legalization

Of course, whether one should change their views on these topics, or whether one should stick with the viewpoint of 50 years ago is another, harder question. It’s clear there has been social change in the past 50 years on many important topics. Some still hold the views of the past, and not just a small number. For example, while only 27% of adults think same-sex relations are wrong, 27% is not a small number: it’s about 70 million adults in the US.

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