Zeitgeist: Living in the ’70s

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

Those were the days, oh yes, those were the days.

Those Were the days – Mary Hopkin – 1968

Zeitgeist is a very useful Z word that means ‘the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.’ (Google’s English Dictionary provided by Oxford Languages).  

A word often used to describe the ‘70s is ‘liberation’ as opposed to the ‘60s which could be defined as the beginning of ‘anti-establishment values and alternative philosophies’.  

Author Tom Wolfe called it the ‘the “me” decade’ where people became more concerned with the individual rather than the community. 

For Leo and Joanne it was a time of opportunity.  They were both able to complete a university education with help from the government.  They could afford to buy land and build a house, despite interest rates rising to 18%.  They both had guaranteed jobs as soon as they finished their teacher training. Unlike their parents, they had a smooth path through life.

They had seen a change in arts, music and culture from the antiwar sentiments and political unrest carried over from the ‘60s to the disco scene of the second half of the decade.  They also saw a trend towards violence in the movies they watched.  Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs were disturbingly menacing and The Exorcist was frankly terrifying.

Joanne and Leo read about the Watergate scandal in America, rejoiced at the end of the war in Vietnam and were concerned at the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1979 and the Iranian Revolution in the same year.  It seemed that as soon as one crisis ended another began.

Computers took up a whole room at the beginning of the ‘70s but the small Apple 2 personal computer made its debut in 1977.  Joanne and Leo wouldn’t see computers in schools until the mid ‘80s.  Personal computers, mobile phones and tablets were fantasies belonging to science fiction.  Information was found in books, journals and newspapers and news was heard hourly on the radio and watched every night between 6 and 7.30pm. 

Apple II in typical 1977 configuration with 9″ monochrome monitor, game paddles, and Red Book recommended RQ-309DS cassette deck
9 June 2019
Own work

The ’70s allowed Joanne the freedom to decide when she would have a baby by using the contraceptive pill. Advances in medical science saw the first child conceived by in-vitro fertilization born in 1978 causing fierce debate in Joanne’s circle of friends.

For homosexuals, the time of hiding and fear of prosecution was coming to an end. South Australia legalised homosexuality in 1975, followed by the Australian Capital Territory in 1976. It would take a while before the whole country was on board but it was a start. In 1978 the first Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras was held in Sydney to highlight the discrimination against gay people.

The first Mardi Gras entrants from 1978 at the 30th Annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney in 2008. Photograph: Jane Dempster/AAP

The 1971 South Africa rugby union tour of Australia was not something Joanne would have chosen to attend, but Leo was keen.  Anti-apartheid protestors appeared, letting off smoke bombs.  Joanne was frisked as her long black coat could be hiding all sorts of weapons.  There was no more sporting contact with the Springboks until the 1990s when apartheid had been abolished.

Another form of protest was the Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up in 1972 (it’s still there) opposing the exploration licences granted to big companies to mine traditional Aboriginal land. The 1975 Land Bill saw the beginning of land rights for Aboriginal people.

Establishment of Aboriginal Tent Embassy on Australia Day, 26 January 1972 National Museum Australia

Although seen by many as unions holding the country to ransom the Green Bans of the early ’70s saved the historic Rocks area of Sydney which was destined to go under the jackhammer, along with many other historical buildings in Sydney.

NSW Builders Labourers Federation Union secretary Jack Mundey is arrested during the ‘green bans’ at The Rocks in 1973 which saved the historic buildings of Sydney’s birthplace

Australia’s performance in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal was so poor the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser set up an inquiry and the Australian Institute of Sport was established. The old attitude that the talented sportsperson will make their own way to the top was gone forever.

Daylight Saving was introduced in 1971 in N.S.W., Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and the A.C.T. The following year Queensland discontinued it as many farmers found it disruptive. Most of the country has stuck with it ever since. Compulsory front seat belts were introduced in 1969 with the intention of saving lives. 1971 saw them mandatory on all seats. The 1970s also saw a change in the attitude to drink driving. In 1968 a new law meant a driver could be breath tested only after an accident or driving offence. However it took until 1980 before the legal limit dropped from 0.8 to 0.5 and 1982 before random breath testing began.

One of the images used by Volvo to market the seatbelt safety in its Amazon model. Picture: Volvo

The change to the metric system was another feature of the 1970s. In 1974 Joanne found herself suddenly teaching mathematics totally in metric. Conversions were not encouraged. Shops were only allowed to advertise in metric. The success of conversion has been attributed to the fact it was planned across all sectors of society, all states and the federal government were on board, the speed of the change was rapid, the whole of the population changed together and the benefits were continually reinforced.

Australia Post released stamps to commemorate the nation’s conversion to metric.(Supplied: Australia Post)

The 1970s and 1980s saw 120,000 southern Asian refugees migrate to Australia. People arrived by boat and air from Vietnam and as Australia had no refugee policy at the time, the Fraser government developed it on the run and a policy of resettlement and multiculturalism emerged. Although many Australians were opposed to refugee resettlement the government did not succumb to public anxieties the way they do today.*

Looking back at the 1970s, even though there were aspects which were universal, there were also some changes which reflect the unique nature of the Australian people. Their acceptance of regulation and new ideas contrasts to other countries where the right of the individual was considered more important than the needs of the community. Although the country was rocked by a constitutional crisis it picked itself up and continued to work towards the common good. It was an era of freedom, but not at any price. It was a time of change, but a greater appreciation of heritage was developing.

As Joanne flew back from America in 1977 she read a flight magazine which inspired her next class project. It was all about Renewable Energy. It cited Solar energy, Geothermal energy, Wind energy, Hydropower and maybe a few more as being the way of the future. Proposed as an attempt to reduce pollution and take the place of dwindling non-renewable resources it seemed like it would solve many problems. There was not even a discussion about global warming in those days. Pollution was the word on everyone’s lips. Plastic was becoming the scourge of the world. Scientists were alarmed at the growing hole in the ozone layer and aware of the link to chlorofluorocarbons. Slip-Slop-Slap emerged in the early ’80s as a sun protection campaign in Australia and New Zealand to beat the deadly solar rays.

Cancer Council’s Slip Slop Slap campaign
Updated 11 Oct 2017, 5:59pm
ABC News

So what was the Zeitgeist of the ’70s? Liberation? Opportunity? Recognition of minorities? Multiculturalism? Freedom? Regulation? Medical miracles? Scientific advances? Standing up for your beliefs? Unapologetic hedonism?

I think I’ve written enough in the last 26 posts so will leave it up to you to decide.

*Thanks to Rachel Stevens of The Conversation (Misha Ketchell, Editor) for the article We can’t compare Australia’s intake of Afghan refugees with the post-Vietnam War era. Here’s why.