Century of changes, but fewer than you'd think

Marriage, schools, traffic - then and now

New president, New Economy, new year, new century. Change is the order of the day.

But like a calm sea with its swells, there are also elements of constancy in American life.

To be sure, things are different. The United States is fuller, stronger, healthier, and wealthier than it was in 1900, when most of the country lived a rural life and tuition to Harvard cost $3,000.

Yet one of the striking sub-themes of the past century might be what has not altered - what has ended up largely where it began.

For instance, change has undoubtedly rocked the institution of marriage. But not all norms have given way. The median age at which American men get married is 27 today. It was 26 in 1900, according to US Census Bureau data.

Women have grown a little more patient (or wary) over the century, but not by much. For them, the median age for tying the knot in 1900 was 22. Today it's 25.

And while "gender balance" wasn't dinner-table language in the early 1900s, women have had bragging rights to being the smarter sex for a long time. The nation's 1900 high school graduating class was predominated by women, as it is today.

The workplace? Talk about change. Americans have gone from being primarily producers to mainly processors over the past century. But the share of men driving trucks, working as laborers, and holding secondary occupations is pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago.

A nation obsessed with stats

One unmistakable change now part of the national psyche is the appetite to know these sorts of things. Statistics and numerical benchmarks proliferate, ranging from stock market and inflation indexes to test scores for students.

Indeed, much of the data Americans have amassed is synthesized in "The First Measured Century," a recent book by Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks, and Ben Wattenberg. It culls data from the US Census Bureau, Gallup polls, the National Opinion Research Center, and a range of other sources. Its authors call Americans "the most energetic measurers of social life that ever lived."

Not to misrepresent their findings, it should be noted that the writers of the book are struck most by the "gigantic successes and remarkable failures" of the 20th century.

But those transformations make all the more glaring some of the consistencies that thread through the 1900s and are reported in the work.

Organized religion, for example, has clearly grown more diverse over the past 100 years, with huge jumps in the number of Muslims and followers of Eastern Orthodox denominations in the US.

But count the noses at weekly religious services across the land, and the picture is much what it was in the early 1900s: About 40 percent of American adults are in attendance, according to the Princeton Research Center.

Healthcare is certainly one of the growth industries of the past century, having become not only an enormous industry, but an arena of growing government involvement and public concern.

Yet the average daily number of hospital patients in America, adjusted for the size of the population, is about what it was in 1930. The rate of suicide per 100,000 people was also roughly the same at the end of the century as at the beginning.

Migrating society

The United States has long been known as a mobile society, with migration patterns altering the political and economic composition of virtually every region of the country over time.

But when all is said and done, the percentage of the population moving each year has altered only slightly, from 20 percent in 1948 to about 16 percent in 1999.

Economically, the country has become a very different place. Homeownership and investment in the stock market are markedly more mainstream activities than they were earlier in the past century.

But income distribution to the bottom tier of society remains largely unchanged. The total share of national income going to the lowest 40 percent of families was virtually unchanged from 1929 to 1998.

Convinced the roads today are more crowded and dangerous? Well, statisticians report remarkable consistency in one area. Annual traffic fatalities, adjusted for population, ended the century pretty much where they were when the numbers were first tabulated in the 1920s (17 per 100,000 in 1923 versus 16 per 100,000 in 1997).

Violent crime no worse

Despite the ebb and flow of crime and attendant political pressures, the death penalty is being wielded in America at about the same level as it was in the first decade of the 20th century. Executions between 1900 and 1909 were nearly identical to the number between 1990 and 1998.

And speaking of crime, it isn't really more violent than it used to be. In 1910, about 24 percent of those behind bars were there for committing violent crime. Ditto in 1996, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Politically, it could be said that Americans have been remarkably consistent during the past century. Through 25 presidential elections, 12 Democrats and 13 Republicans were put in the Oval Office.

And while many worry about declining turnout at the polls, the country's greatest apathy era was from 1900 to 1920, when the percentage of eligible voters casting ballots sank from greater than 70 percent to less than 50 percent. Since then, it's wandered up and down, but stayed in the ballpark of where it was in 1920.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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