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The Dumbing Down of America Over 50 Years

As a baby boomer, Denise and millions of others are becoming senior citizens. She explores what it means to be over 60 today.


Concern for America

I am concerned. I have looked around and can hardly believe what I see. Young people resist education, show little creativity and ingenuity, hardly ever play outside or do any strenuous chores, and eat way too much junk food. Here are just a few of the changes I have noticed.

“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.”

— Carl Sagan


50 Years Ago vs Today

50 years ago, the owner’s manual of a car showed you how to adjust the valves. Today it warns you not to drink the contents of the battery.

50 years ago, the instructions for a hair blow dryer told you to unplug the device to store it. Today it warns you not to blow dry your hair while taking a bath. Really?

50 years ago, I had memorized as many as 20 phone numbers. Today I have trouble remembering my own.

50 years ago, we always got dressed up for church on Sunday. We wore the best shoes and the best dress we owned and were well behaved or got it from Mom later. Today “dressed up” seems to mean a clean T-shirt and jeans with holes.

50 years ago, on Easter, we dressed even better than on regular Sundays. We got new dresses, new shoes, gloves, and hats. It was one of the yearly events where we got new clothes: Easter, the First day of school, and Christmas. Today, kids buy new clothes whenever the mood hits and parents have the money. It is no longer a special thing.

I'm not really advocating for fashion as much as for pride in appearance and grooming. Have we really lost all pride in the effort to be our best in favor of comfort and convenience?

People read fewer books now than they did 50 years ago. Instead of reading books, we’re watching cable or satellite TV, playing computer games, chatting on smart phones, cruising the internet, and answering questions on Quora. My town of 56,000 no longer has a bookstore. (We used to have both a Walden’s and a used bookstore.) At least we still have libraries.

— Jane Leavell

50 years ago, the SAT test required for many college admissions included an essay portion to the test. There was also a “guessing penalty” when too many questions were answered randomly, implying they were guessed at. Today the essay portion is optional only and there is no longer a guessing penalty. They suggest you answer all questions even if you don’t know or aren’t sure of the answer.

50 years ago, the closest thing we had to Facebook was a high school yearbook. When applying for a college the admissions officers had only the references you gave to check on. Today, according to “Inside Higher Ed” an estimated 36 percent of college admissions officers check your social media profile as part of the application review process. If you put it out there and make it public, don’t be surprised if it comes back to bite you.

50 years ago, words like “cahoots” and “grouchy” were considered slang. Today, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary lists them as Standard English. Makes you wonder what slang words from today will someday be standard also.


“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

50 years ago, according to "Stacker," the average American worker put in 38.1 hours for 43 weeks. Today the average employee works 38.7 hours for 46.8 weeks per year. Are we working smarter? Has technology really saved time and labor?

50 years ago, teenagers had a fairly sheltered life, rarely seeing violence or death. Today the average teen by the age of 13 has seen thousands of acts of violence and disaster on television and the Internet, not to mention video games.

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50 years ago, divorce was rare and most children grew up secure in a two-parent family. The divorce rate was 2.3 for every 1,000 people in 1955 in America. Today, 3.6 for every 1,000 people is divorced and that is a decline from 20 years ago only because most young people are no longer getting married.

50 years ago, and even 25 years ago, America ranked No 1 in high school and college education globally. Today, 30 countries outperform us in mathematics and science. Our graduates are the poorest educated in the global market according to "Education Week."

50 years ago, literacy may have been generally lower than today, but according to the Pew Research Center findings, an average of 8% of Americans did not read a book 25 years ago compared to 23% of Americans who didn’t crack a book cover today. Today most average Americans read only 4 books per year. The research further shows that about 72% of Americans read only one book last year and that only “in part” whereas people in India on average read over 10 books per year.

I’ve read 5 books this month and I’m a slow reader. I never got the hang of speed reading and now that I’m retired, I figure why shouldn’t I enjoy reading for reading’s sake. Also, I realize that because I’m retired, I have more time to read for pleasure than the average 30-year-old. I feel sure that if you don’t read occasionally, you are missing out on a great pleasure. Like most muscles that aren’t used, your reading skills will grow flabby and weak if you don’t use them.


“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark


Final Thoughts

Some of these things seem trivial but some are alarming. Our country is no longer a global powerhouse. We aren’t first in industry or technology anymore. I’d love to read what you think in the comments below.

Comparing life today with life fifty years ago

Stacker: 50 Ways Workforce has Changed in 50 years

Insider: How the divorce rate has changed over the past 150 years

Education Week: Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up)

History Net: Was American ever No 1 in education

Pew Research Center research of Americans reading books

The Atlantic on reading books


Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 27, 2021:

Lora Hollings,

You are so right. I hadn't thought of H.G. Well's "Time Machine" but it doesn't seem too far-fetched anymore, does it? I used to love reading Sherlock Holmes with his deductive reasoning and trying them myself. Now I'm not sure how many even care for such reasoning. Sad. Thanks for commenting.



Lora Hollings on September 27, 2021:

Denise, you present some very profound observations in your article and changes that all of us should be very concerned about. Like you, I really admired Carl Sagan and I remember him saying that unless people acquire good critical thinking skills we will become the pawns of unscrupulous politicians and we won’t make good choices for ourselves or for future generations. I see this happening now and it is scary. He also used to say that we don’t have to become scientists but we need to be like scientists in the way we think so that we can actively challenge what we hear and reject that which isn’t based on reason and logic. When I taught school, we were encouraged to give students assignments such as essays on topics which would require them to use critical thinking skills, now teaching seems to involve students mainly interacting with computers and answering more yes and no questions or a format that doesn’t require the use of real analysis and deductive reasoning skills. I, too, am concerned about the future of America and wonder if H.G. Well’s “Time Machine” isn’t too far off in our distant future. Thank you for writing this article that I hope many will read and contemplate.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 26, 2021:

Maria Logan Montgomery,

Yes, casual is nice but it can be overdone. I like dressing up and don't find many places that it's appropriate anymore. As an artist, it is common for us to be weird and unusual so I used to wear hats and dress up for the strangest things like work and everyday shopping. I found the looks I got to be fun. Thanks for the comment.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 26, 2021:

Kalpana Iyer,

It's so lovely to hear from you on this. I love this younger generation for all you could be doing and all the beauty you bring but I'm worried for you too. I'm glad you can see some differences and hope you have the courage to find ways to cope and overcome the problems that are coming your way. Thanks for commenting.



Maria Logan Montgomery from Coastal Alabama, UsA on September 25, 2021:

I just read this article. I couldn't agree more. When I am reviewing books, I cringe at some of the mistakes I find -- and the books get published anyway! I really mourn the fact that people don't seem to care how they look anymore, or maybe they don't know how to dress appropriately for different situations. Getting dressed up now and then feels special, and is often fun. I really enjoyed your article.

Kalpana Iyer from India on September 25, 2021:

Hi Denise, I am in my 30s, and I agree with most of what you have written. Everything needs to be dumbed down and sugar-coated nowadays. We are an unhappy generation. I am grateful for the inclusivity and the freedom we have today. But there are some things I miss from the simpler days of no internet.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

Linda Lum,

Yes, the spewing of each person's own "truth" has become and National pass time and a very scary thing when you consider how many people actually research what they have read to see if it is true. My daughter, like yours, has been a throw-back to a bygone era, saving for the future, canning her own jams, cooking from scratch, and teaching her children to do likewise. I appreciate your comments.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

John Coviello,

I agree wholeheartedly. I used to encourage reading and the value of books by having a reading-aloud time for my teenagers every day. At first, I got a lot of scoffing and pushback, one son saying he was too old to be read to. But because I picked engaging historical novels, I soon drew them in with the drama of it and they were all 4 hooked. (That is the same son who now has authored 6 Young Adult Fantasy Novels himself.) Now they read aloud to their children. How else can we push books but by cracking them open and showing how wonderful they are inside. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

Rosina S Khan,

It is up to the younger generation who will be taking over for us, isn't it? I can only hope the next generation wants to change things and fix them. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

Chitrangada Sharan,

I'm so very glad you think so. So many people think it is just a broken system and should be scraped. But if enough of us are aware and want to fix it, I still think we can. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

John Hansen,

Really? Do you see some of these things in Australia as well? I was hoping it was an isolated thing that we could fix if we focused on it. I don't know what the answers are but awareness may be one of the keys. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

Peggy Woods,

Oh, Peggy, me too. I would not trade what I learned and my childhood for anything. I'm glad we didn't have Internet back then and I had to actually go to a library to research information. I'm glad I had to use my imagination to make up games rather than having them formated for me on a video screen. Thanks for commenting.



Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on September 25, 2021:

Denise, I wish I could disagree with even one of your points, but I can't. I can remember when flying was a big deal, and we dressed up for that (wow, I must be a dinosaur like our friend Bill).

Fortunately, there are still a few young(er) people out there who have a good work ethic and are planning and saving for their future (my daughter, for example).

Pamela's comment about the cost of education is valid but one can also cut the cost by getting an associate degree (make sure those credits are transferable) at a two-year college. So much cheaper!! And, spending more for tuition doesn't guarantee a good education. You get out of it what you put into it.

The internet, as said by Rock-nj is a blessing and a curse. Yes, there's so much information, but just because it's there in print doesn't make it true. There are very few true journalists anymore. Anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can spew their "truth" and feed lies and propaganda.

A very good article my friend.

John Coviello from New Jersey on September 25, 2021:

Great summary of the dumbing down of America. The Internet is a double-edged sword in this regard. Vast and nearly unending knowledge is available to young people and anyone from their Internet connection. However, the Internet has also made pseudo-science and conspiracy theories mainstream and easily accessible, which has surely dumbed down a lot of people who don't have the education to discern complicated science from pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.

I always tell my son the best thing to do with free time is to read, as it broadens one's intelligence and vocabulary.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

Pamela Oglesby,

Yes, and it is harder financially than ever before to get a good education. When I went back to school for my Master's degree I couldn't believe how much information was repeated from my high school edcation. Thanks for commenting.



Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 25, 2021:

Bill Holland,

Well, I never pegged you for a conspiracy theorist but you may be right. No one wants to think it but it is so close to the truth how can you dismiss it? There seems to be some intelligent design in getting us so comfortable and complacent. Thanks for your views.



Rosina S Khan on September 24, 2021:

A very intriguing read, Denise. I think your points are valid. Thay are happening all the world. There should be massive people coming forward to do something about it. We can no longer sit back and see it hapen. We should make a difference so that we are able to change the beliefs and behaviour of the younger generations for the better and better. Thank you for sharing this article.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 24, 2021:

An engaging article, Denise!

I am not happy about the changes, which you have mentioned above, wherever it may be happening. We all are part of this World, and influence each other.

Times have changed, for sure. But, being an optimist, I do believe that people should continue to restore and revive our rich cultures and traditions, and your article is a step in the right direction, to spread awareness.

Thank you for sharing!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 24, 2021:

A very interesting article, Denise. Even though I am not American I can relate to a lot of what you say. I think there is a general dumbing down of western society, not just America. Thank you for sharing.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 24, 2021:

So much of what you wrote is true. I am actually glad that I grew up in a nuclear family that believed in honesty, hard work, and family time spent together. We watched little TV, played outside, had chores, etc. We had school clothes, church clothes, and play clothes. We learned many of the basics in school, and also from our parents and grandparents. I would not give up those days for anything.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 24, 2021:

Unfortunately, I fully agree with what you have written and with Bill's comment. Sometimes you see news people asking simple questions of people (sometimes college students) simple questions and people are clueless. You gave so many good examples, Denise. This is an important article.

I am not sure why this is happening. All of my grandchildren working hard, got educated and have good jobs, but this is not the norm any more. It is quite sad. I wish I knew what I could do to make a difference.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 24, 2021:

I know there are those who would argue with what you've written, but I believe it to be true, and a part of me, tucked in a deep recess of my brain, believes it is an attempt on the part of big business and politicians to keep the masses under control. I sure hope I'm wrong about that.

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