A timely - and timeless - suburban story

The scene is 50 years ago on an early June day when a suburbanite named Tom Rath hears about a job opening at a broadcasting company in New York.

A friend warns him that this public-relations position could be a "rat race." But Tom sees it as a way to make more money so he and his wife, Betsy, can afford a bigger house and a better life for their young family. Status matters.

The rest, as they say, is history - in this case literary history. Tom and Betsy are fictional, the couple at the center of Sloan Wilson's 1955 bestseller, "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." For a day or two last week, they reappeared briefly in news accounts of Wilson's death.

Their cameo appearance was enough to send at least one obituary reader to the library to track down that long-ago book. Its pages have yellowed, but Wilson's portrait of suburban life in 1953 retains elements of timeliness, even timelessness. The American tendency to idealize the 1950s as a time of domestic contentment looks less accurate through Wilson's eyes.

By today's standards, Tom and Betsy married young, at 21. They have three children by 33, a contrast to the current trend toward later childbearing. Before Tom takes the broadcasting job, he earns $7,000 a year at a privatefoundation, the equivalent of $48,000 now. Their six-room house in leafy Westport, Conn., is worth $15,000 - $103,000 in today's dollars. Even then, the rising cost of real estate was a staple of party conversation.

But happiness eludes the Raths. "We shouldn't be so discontented all the time," Betsy tells Tom. They complain of exhaustion and call their stage of life the "Tired Thirties, the time when people have children and have to make good at jobs, and buy houses, and all the rest of it. That's why nothing seems to be much fun anymore."

They also worry about "budgets and bills and frantic planning for the future" - concerns that are equally common today.

In 1953, no one talks about "family-friendly companies," since most mothers are at home. (Wilson describes Betsy as a "conscientious household manager.") But the tension between work and home is evident even then. Tom's boss, an unapologetic workaholic, expects Tom to be available for evening meetings. No wonder Betsy says wistfully, "I wish we had more time together."

Tom stands firm. "The important thing is to make money," he insists, sounding like a member of the dotcom generation. Yet he wrestles privately with the tug of conflicting ideals and multiple responsibilities.

Determined to make changes, Betsy decrees that the family must attend church regularly. Their daughters balk at dressing up, saying, "Why do we have to wear party clothes to go to church?" What 21st-century parent hasn't heard variations on that line? Tom, equally unaccustomed to this Sunday routine, notices that the pews are "filled with elderly ladies."

Other plotlines offer equally telling parallels. Tom's boss, the broadcasting company president, earns $200,000 a year plus stock deals. His salary alone adds up to $1.4 million in today's dollars - modest by CEO standards now.

The Raths' generation even has its version of homeland security. Authorities planning for Civilian Defense want to use a tower on the Raths' property for "sky watches" and "airplane spotters."

Some details are quaint, of course: When Tom's flight from Los Angeles to New York is delayed, he sends Betsy a wire. Stewardesses offer gum before takeoff. On the first cold day of autumn, women in New York turn out in fur coats. And at 33, Tom sees his life as half over - laughable now, when many 30-somethings are just settling down and life expectancy is approaching 80.

Near the end of the book, Tom says, "I'm still ambitious. I want to get ahead as far as I possibly can without sacrificing my entire personal life." Yet as he watches all the "bright young men in gray flannel suits rushing around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere," he muses that they seem "to be pursuing neither ideals nor happiness," but simply a routine. Can a reordering of his own priorities be many pages away?

If the Raths were real, they would be in their early 80s now, watching new generations grapple with the challenges they face. Would Tom recall his gray flannel suit ($70 in 1953, equivalent to $482 today) as his son goes to work in khakis on "casual Friday"? Would Betsy look at their daughters and wonder what it would have been like to pursue a career? Might their grandchildren be dreaming of McMansions in upscale suburbs?

The quest for bigger and better remains firmly entrenched, and the rat race continues. So does the search for values. Torn between a quest for higher status and a yearning for a closer family, Tom and Betsy stand as a thoroughly modern couple - Wilson's reassuring reminder that every generation's seemingly new script is at heart only a revision.

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