The Global Era, 1970s–2010s

In the Global Era, the United States became a nation of fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Consumers and producers adapted to rapid change driven by computers, large amounts of data, and smart devices. Increased global interdependence created efficiencies and opportunities for some, but erased safeguards and employment for others.


In a globalized economy, innovative ideas as well as products flowed easily across national borders. Businesses became dispersed, as decision-making, financing, design, labor, production, and marketing spread to many locations. Global trade improved opportunity for many, was disastrous for some, and challenged local cultures and customs.

Japanese McDonald’s sign, 1975

In 1971 McDonald’s expanded to Japan. Some people worried that American brands endangered local traditions. Others argued that successful brands adapted to local culture. This sign was made in the U.S.A. for use in Japan. While the writing is in Japanese, the sign remains instantly recognizable due to its color scheme and signature golden arches.

The next stop is to your right, along the back wall.

Michael Bloomberg, 1942–

Laid off by a Wall Street investment bank in 1981, Michael Bloomberg took his severance package and opened a specialized information company for the financial industry. His niche offerings and the must-have Bloomberg Terminal computer system became foundations of a multi-billion-dollar media empire.

Bloomberg keyboard, about 1987

Custom-built keyboards made using the Bloomberg financial market system easy, even for traders who lacked computer skills.

Dora Hilda Escobar, 1969–

Dora Hilda Escobar arrived from El Salvador in the 1980s, seeking opportunity but finding exploitation. Entrepreneurial and hardworking, she labored in the gray economy selling clothes and making pupusas in her home. Eventually she built a business selling to the émigré community, which expanded to multiple restaurants and check-cashing facilities.

Turn around. The last stops of the tour are along the left wall.

In Debt

In the 1980s Americans began borrowing to maintain a middle-class life. Overall individual debt increased faster than income. Deregulation in the financial sector opened new opportunities for many, but by the early 2000s some lenders and borrowers became greedy and ignored risk. Government regulators also became lax. The debt took many forms: credit cards, student loans, and mortgages with variable rates and low introductory teasers. While some managed, others were overwhelmed.

Foreclosure sign, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about 2010

During the cyclical downturn of 2008, home foreclosures skyrocketed as people lost jobs, low teaser rate adjustable rate mortgages reset, and the housing bubble burst. Realtor Kevin Berman of Bankers Realty Services used this foreclosure sign in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, area between 2008 and 2012.

Going Mobile

As technology went digital, Americans' information devices became more mobile. Immediate access to everything helped spawn a social media revolution, gave consumers greater choices, and sped up business. Some loved being connected, but others worried that they could never escape work or surveillance.

Motorola DynaTAC cell phone, about 1989

The first commercial handheld cell phone debuted in 1984, cost $3,995, and weighed 2.5 pounds. Mobile phones soon got smaller and cheaper.

Immigrant Labor

The U.S. economy has long been powered by migrants and immigrants. New populations provided diversity, increased innovation, and created a pool of new entrepreneurs. But they also depressed wages in some sectors, including service, agriculture, and engineering. Some immigrants achieved success. Others experienced hardship. Most sought expanded opportunities for their children.

Maria Jayme’s nurse’s cap, 1991

To relieve a nursing shortage, the federal government gave special visas to foreign nurses and eventually allowed them to become permanent residents. Filipina nurses like Maria Jayme were highly valued because they spoke English. Jayme received this cap during her graduation capping ceremony.