Book Review

Where We've Been and Where We're Going


"One consequence of deregulation during the Reagan Administration was the blurring of sizing formulas adopted in the 1940’s by the National Bureau of Standards. A half-century ago, a size-10 dress had a 34.5-inch hipline. To accommodate the Baby Boom bulge, the smallest size 10 that Bruno Ferri’s Wolf Form Company now makes has a 37-inch hipline. ‘I hate to say it,’ Ferri conceded, ‘but it’s a con job on women’."

By Ralph Heller

id the author of those lines intend the phrase "Baby Boom bulge" to be a pun in this context? It’s merely one of hundreds and hundreds of anecdotal tales about the changing shape of America (another pun, obviously) in "Who We Are," an examination of the meaning of the information turned up in the most recent U.S. Census by Sam Roberts, Urban Affairs Correspondent for the New York Times.

Roberts discloses that the percentage of Nevada’s population 65 years old or older as of 1990 was between 10 and 12.5 percent, making Nevada a younger state than Oregon or Arizona but older than Michigan and Minnesota. We tend to think of Nevada as a major retirement destination but the percentage of residents over 65 in Nevada is no higher than the percentage of residents over 65 in neighboring California.

And the youngest states? They’re mostly stretched down the eastern seaboard, believe it or not—Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, plus Utah—each with less than 10 percent of its population being 65 or older.

The nation’s complexion changed more radically in the 1980s than in any previous decade, reports Roberts, and twice as fast as during the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s Americans born in Asia outnumbered Americans born in Europe for the first time, and residents born in Latin America outnumbered both.

The 1980s also marked the rise and fall of "yuppies" and the rise of so-called "dinks"—couples with "Dual Incomes and No Kids." Roberts reports that what a New Jersey demographer calls the "3 D’s"—delayed marriage, deferred childbirth and divorce—have combined to give the idea of what constitutes a typical American household a whole new meaning. Today one of every four children born in the 1980s and ‘90s is being raised in a one-parent household, and there is an unprecedented high percentage of childless couples.

Moreover, Americans are waiting longer and longer to marry. Since 1956 the median age of men marrying has risen from under 23 to 26, and the median age of brides has risen from just over 20 to 24. Largely responsible for this, reports Roberts, is the women’s liberation movement and more widespread acceptance of unmarried cohabitation. The pejorative word "spinster" has fallen into disuse and "old maid" is now little more than the name of a card game.

The most dramatic change in America has been its aging population. Two hundred years ago the median age of the population—meaning half were younger and half older—was about 16, but by 1990 the median age had reached 32.9 although the year-to-year increase had slowed down a bit in recent years. Two variables drive median age: fertility and longevity. At the beginning of this century a typical American could expect to live 49 years and the odds on surviving to age 65 were no better than 41 out of 100.

But an American born in the last decade is likely to live to be at least 75, representing a remarkable 50 percent increase in longevity in less than a century although life expectancy varies considerably from race to race and between men and women.

And where are we going? According to the author, the surge in immigration and the surprising high birth rate among Hispanics will probably boost the nation’s population by another 50 percent to around 400 million by the year 2050. By then more than one in five U.S. residents will have come to the U.S. since 1990 or be children of those immigrants.

Before becoming the New York Times Urban Correspondent Sam Roberts was City Editor of the New York Daily News, and in the appendices of "Who We Are" are tables of state-by-state comparisons by race, median family income, ancestry, social characteristics and more. The most urban states turn out to be, in this order, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Illinois, Florida, New York and Massachusetts. Yes, Nevada is now the seventh most urbanized state in the nation.

Published by the Time Books subsidiary of Random House, "Who We Are" is an ideal Christmas gift for any marketing executive, serious journalist, family member or friend interested in the dramatic changes altering American society in recent years. The author reminds us that it was De Tocqueville who first used the phrase "Anglo-American" to describe Americans of English ancestry; those Americans today claiming whole or part English ancestry constitute only 13.1 percent of the population. I wonder how DeTocqueville would describe the majority of U.S. residents today. u

Ralph Heller is Senior Consulting Editor of Nevada Journal.


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