Around 1978, the American culture changed. Before that year, there was an unwritten social contract between Americans, promising that everyone could have a slice of the American dream.
But along the way-beginning with wage stagnation in 1973 and subsequent economic equality and culminating in 2008’s financial meltdown-this idea declined, said George Packer, author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer spoke on Wednesday as part of the Lowell Humanities Series.
The Unwinding, which won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2013, focuses on the stories of several Americans and their struggles to succeed in today’s disjointed society. Packer used these stories in order to tell the larger story of the institutional failures that took place in America beginning in 1978.
“It was a lot of economic upheaval and difficulty and widespread discontentment-a sense things had gone wrong,” he said. “The reaction to the discontentment of that time gave us the era we live in now, which I call ‘the unwinding.'”
Packer structured the book into a series of vignettes, featuring a varying cast of characters: Tammy Thomas, a former factory worker and current community organizer from Ohio; Jeff Connaughton, former lobbyist, lawyer, and Joe Biden’s biggest fan; Dean Price, an idealist champion of biofuels; and Peter Thiel from Silicon Valley, who agrees with the idea that everything started going wrong in the ’70s.
Interspersed between the chapters about these everyday Americans are 10 short, tongue-in-cheek biographies of celebrities, many of whom pulled themselves up in the world, such as Jay-Z, Martha Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey. Packer included these celebrities to capture how they influence today’s culture. These stars dangle a myth in front of the everyday American: “Anything is possible, if only you have the right attitude,” Packer said.
“There’s often a quality of self-invention to their rise,” he said. “But we know they aren’t really inviting us to be just like them. Their success is based on leaving the rest of us behind.”
Price, for example, has the right attitude, but not everything is possible for him, Packer said. Despite the setbacks he faces with his biofuel company, he can conceive of a more hopeful America after a difficult transformation. This transformation is possible as soon as Americans begin to view their individual lives differently, Packer said at the end of his talk.
“Many Americans don’t just live alone, but feel they are alone without the old foundations to support their dreams,” he said. “Change begins the moment when people see their familiar lives in a new way-as not normal, and not just.”
In The Unwinding, Packer hopes to restore power to the individual person and to weave this account through their stories. The struggle many of the characters face is like a flow of water that is pushing them in certain historical directions, he said.
“In a way. we can all make something of our own individual lives, but we really can’t do it without understanding that we’re all part of the same society,” he said.