Calling "The First Measured Century" a book is stretching the term. It is plotless, consisting of graphs, lots of graphs, each one accompanied by a few paragraphs of text. It's meant to be used in conjunction with a three-hour PBS television special (check local listings at: www.pbs.org/fmc/program.htm) demonstrating how statistics explain social change in the US during the past 100 years.
In 15 data-packed chapters, it tells the tale of the US population, workforce, education system, families, religious activity, leisure, healthcare, money, crime, and more. Selecting and explaining the statistics are Theodore Caplow, a University of Virginia sociology professor; Louis Hicks, a sociologist who splits his time between the American Enterprise Institute - a Washington thinktank - and St. Mary's College of Maryland; and Ben Wattenberg, a long-time AEI fellow who comes from the Democratic Party trenches. Wattenberg has been host of numerous PBS programs, including "The Grandchild Gap," "America's Number One: Now What?" and "The Stockholder Society." He hosts the program associated with this book.
Many of the graphs with their accompanying texts illustrate the obvious. For example, a graph showing unemployed persons as a percentage of the civilian labor force is next to text with the headline: "The unemployment rate fluctuated with the business cycle and military manpower needs." No kidding.
Even the obvious, however, can hold interest while serving as an educational tool: "At the end of the century, blue-collar workers had about twice the unemployment risk of white-collar workers. Within the white-collar group, sales and clerical personnel had about twice the risk of managers."
Other graph/text pairings illustrate trends that seem much less obvious, perhaps even counterintuitive. For example, "The time and attention that American parents devote to their children increased significantly." Really? In this rush-rush workaday world? Apparently so. Part of the reason, the authors surmise, is that mothers and fathers spent fewer hours on the job and much less time performing housework.
But, the surmising continues, there is more to consider: In the early portion of the century, parents and their children tended to have little in common. Many of the parents grew up in rural areas before automobiles and radios were common. Many of the parents lacked higher education, and lots of those had not completed high school. So the ways of their children seemed foreign.
By 1999, though, many parents and children shared the same urban/suburban outlooks on life. Cars were anything but scarce. A common culture created in some measure by television linked the generations. Generational conflict existed, needless to say, but the commonalities frequently outnumbered the differences.
One fascinating, newsmaking quality of "The First Measured Century" is its unveiling of Middletown IV results. Middletown became a common term after Robert and Helen Lynd published their book "Middletown: A Study in Cultural Change." Based on the Lynds 'research from the 1920s in Muncie, Ind., the Middletown data guided the way. Later generations of researchers returned to Middletown again and again. Caplow led a team of social scientists that replicated, then extended, the Lynds' research. For this book, Caplow directed another Middletown survey during 1999.
Steve Weinberg is a statistically challenged author in Columbia, Mo.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society