The Swiftness of the Societal Changes That Occurred Two-thirds of the Way Through the Century

No end of changes in our world are cited as we look back on the twentieth century: population growth, scientific and medical advances, communications technology, transportation, child rearing and family structure, depletion of energy and mineral resources, and human impact on the environment, to name a few. In general we analyze these changes over the whole sweep of the century although some, to be sure, because of their exponential character, have made their mark mainly toward the end of the century.

What has gone largely unreported, it seems to me, is the suddenness with which a set of societal changes occurred in less than a decade between 1965 and 1975 (a step function to a mathematician, a seismic shift to a journalist). In that period, we saw revolutionary change in the way people dress, groom, and behave; in the entertainment that grips them; in equity for minorities, women, and the variously disabled; in higher education; and in the structure of organizations.

The unpopular Vietnam war can account for some of these changes, but surely not all. The changes were too numerous and extended into too many facets of our lives to be explained solely by antiwar fervor. Moreover, what happened was not a blip that ended when the war ended. The changes were permanent. With remarkable speed, as if a switch had been thrown, we altered the way we deal with one another, the way we see our individual relation to society, and the way we structure our organizations to deal with people.

I lived through the period on a university campus, and saw rapid changes in higher education, not to mention dress and behavior, that are with us still. My own professional society, the American Physical Society, transformed itself between the late 1960s and the early 1970s from an organization that held meeting and published papers to an organization that, in addition, promotes equity, highlights links between science and society, seeks to influence policy, and cares for the welfare of its individual members. Why did so much with lasting impact — happen so quickly?