Was Mike Brady Part of the 1%?

1969 saw the premiere of America’s beloved sitcom, The Brady Bunch. It ran from 1969-1974. It went into syndication in 1975, just in time for me to grow up with it.

I never realized how progressive The Brady Bunch was. “Blended families” were unheard of in the 1970’s. Because divorce was still taboo, the show’s creators made Mike Brady a widower. We never learned much about Carol Brady’s first spouse. It went unaddressed.

But reflecting back on The Brady Bunch, one of the more shocking realizations for me is that Mike Brady must have been obscenely wealthy. Take note of the following:

  • Live-in housekeeper
  • Stay-at-home wife (who donned a new hairstyle every two weeks and had no shortage of well-coordinated bell-bottom jumpsuits)
  • Six kids (all of whom were expected to go to college)
  • Two cars
  • Annual Vacations (Hawaii, Dude Ranch)
  • Very cool house (den, family room, three large bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, maid’s quarters, two-car garage, nice backyard)
  • Dog (Tiger…although I think he came from the pound)

I offer this un-scientific analysis in the wake of a recent Wall Street Journal article on whether things have gotten better or worse economically since the 1960’s, the high point of Brady culture. WSJ uses Pew Research as well as survey of business, financial, and academic economists.

According to Pew:

“Compared with 50 years ago, life for people like you in America is better or worse?” A plurality of 46% said things were worse now. Only 34% said life today is better than in the 1960s.”

Economists have a rosier picture:

“Asked to rate whether U.S. living standards were higher today or at various points in the past. Around 80% say those standards are higher today than during the 1990s or earlier.”

Why the disconnect? Economists say the big culprits are:

  • Wages have deteriorated for some groups like those without a college-degree
  • Average workers lost ground during the two most recent recessions
  • Material standards are higher than ever before so we spend more

They didn’t mention my Mike Brady observation (no surprises there). But maybe pop culture did set expectations too high for everyone, especially those lucky enough to have come of age with The Brady Bunch. Today, it is unusual for families with children to have a stay-at-home parent (whether it be Mom or Dad). Two incomes are needed for junior to attend college. A live-in housekeeper is sheer fantasy.

Also we forget, that whatever Mike Brady’s financial situation, he was constrained by traditional norms. That must have been a lot of pressure. Primary breadwinner for six kids, one wife, and one housekeeper. And if he was unhappy, there was no chance he was getting out of it. ABC made that clear in only allowing widowers to be single parents.

The 1960 norms also kept Carol in a gilded cage. What if Carol had been a single mother before she met Mike? I imagine she would have needed a job to support the three girls. I think it would have added more dimension to her character. I watched that show thinking about how poor Alice had to deal with Carol all day. Carol’s main input into how the house was run consisted in telling Alice what cuts of meat she should get from the butcher and where to put the groceries. It seemed Carol could only be destined for pettiness and triviality.

So those norms wouldn’t work today. But they may have inflated expectations about what was possible economically. And it frustrates people who find themselves in the cross-hairs of globalization, technological revolution, and gender fluidity.

The nice thing about The Brady Bunch was that is was predictable. The plot line was simple.

One of the kids gets into a scrape → They try to work it out themselves → They make the problem worse → Some other kid in the family tells on them → Mike swoops in to offer some ounce of wisdom while also doling out appropriate punishment → Life returns to normal → Everyone is happy.

Maybe that is what everyone is hoping will happen today. But unlike on television, there are no quick fixes.