How Mad Men changes the way I look at the 1980s & 1990s (yes, the ’80s & ’90s)

While living in Argentina for eight years I missed out on a lot of American TV shows. Foremost among those is Mad Men. A couple years ago I was able to catch a bit of an episode from season three. After a few minutes I stopped watching. I liked the show but I realized this was a series I needed to watch from the beginning to grasp the storyline.

Now that I’m living in the U.S. again I’m going through a Mad Men marathon via Netflix. I was born at the end of 1965. Certainly the show is making me think differently about the early 1960s, a period that I’ve hardly considered before as being remotely interesting. Clearly the roles played by the actors in Mad Men are not fully representative of the era. But I keep thinking about these characters, their ages in the show, and projecting forward 20 or 25 years to the 1980s and later.

I remember the ’80s very well. That’s the time of my youth: high school, college, and a couple years at the end hunting (unsuccessfully) for a job. As a twenty year old I viewed the early 1960s as a distant era far removed from the reality of my life in 1985. All young adults probably have that perspective as it’s difficult to imagine a time before we were born.

Now, when I look back on the early 1980s I wonder about those characters in Mad Men. What is Peggy Olson doing in 1985 in her mid-forties or even in 1995 in her mid-fifties? Where is Don Draper in his late fifties? (Still living or dropped dead with cirrhosis of the liver from all that drinking or lung cancer from smoking constantly.) In my twenties I often worked with people who, I now realized, spent their young adulthood in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That’s my parents generation but I’ve never understood the passage of time as a generation ages from youth to middle age to the later years of life. (Part of this recognition stems from reflecting on my own aging.)

Attitudes and behaviors don’t change as easily as society would like to imagine. We do evolve and become different people over the decades. At least, many of us make those steps. But some don’t. We see this in one episode of Mad Men where Roger Sterling still holds resentment towards the Japanese even though War World II was twenty years in the past. Twenty years is not that long. If you don’t believe that, then wait a few more years till you look back in astonishment thinking about your own life twenty years ago.

Events of twenty years ago, for those of a certain age, represent recent history that is a part of our lives. We hold onto those things (maybe longer than we should). I can never really relate to the early 1960s, the era of Mad Men. More fascinating, though, is imagining those people a bit older…how people become who they are.

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