As many of you know, I have four adult grandchildren in their 20s. They are confronting the only reality of American life they have ever known, but I have lived through at least three or four transmutations of America – especially the American economy.
Let’s start with the basic unit of economic measure, the U.S. dollar. The 1964 dollar was worth nearly $8.00 in today’s money. I cannot tell you how much gas I bought at 25 cents a gallon. I would pull up to the pump, knowing I would get four gallons per dollar. I had a 1966 Volkswagen bug that would not hold $2.50 in gas because I never approached E on the gas gauge. Today, that same gallon of gas costs around $3.50 per gallon, so a $10 bill will not buy as much gas as a dollar would when I was growing up.
My 1966 bug got around 20 to 25 miles per gallon – less efficient than many small SUVs today. I now drive a 2014 Prius, a car that averages approximately 40-45 miles per gallon.
The cost of cars has increased 11 times since the 1960’s when a new vehicle averaged $2,600. Today, you have done well if you can find a new car for $30,000. Today’s automobiles have many more bells and whistles than even the most top-notch car in the 1960s. My Prius has power windows, power mirrors, a backup camera, and satellite radio. Most of those options did not even exist in 1960.
My first job was working for a farmer in a roadside fruit and vegetable stand. I made 75 cents an hour and worked around 70 hours per week pedaling produce. My net, gross, and total pay averaged $52.50 a week. Since most stores were closed on Sundays during the 1960s, I generally handed my mom the envelope holding my cash wages so she could deposit it in my savings account. I usually kept out a few dollars for incidentals, but I needed no gas money since I did not drive.
Later I got a job at J-Mart – a forerunner of K-Mart, Walmart, and other box stores. The minimum wage was $1.60 an hour, so by working 20 hours a week – I was still in school – I earned a whopping $32 per week. Since I was driving, I needed gas money, so that cost cut into my overall economic solvency.
College costs have also changed radically. When this Virginia boy entered Ohio State in the Fall of 1968, tuition was around $250 per quarter. I went year-round, so my parents graciously paid $1,000 yearly for my education and fees. I generally bought my books. At the end of 12 consecutive quarters in college, I earned my B.A. degree, got a job at Grace Christian School in Kinston, and moved here in August 1971. My parents had paid $3,000 for my four-year degree.
Today, students in college reach a dream education – an education that costs more than they ever dreamed it would. The last year I taught at East Carolina, tuition and fees totaled between $14,000 and $16,000 per year – 56 times what my education cost me in the last 1960s.
Whenever I talk about these changes with my oldest grandkids, we experience double culture shock. They can’t believe how cheap things were “back in the day,” I can’t fathom the economic ocean they face.
Benjamin Franklin made a minor error when he said death and taxes are the only certainties in life. He forgot a third – the incredible shrinking dollar.
Mike Parker is a columnist for the Neuse News. You can reach him at email@example.com.