An unexpected family portrait

Americans tend to think they know themselves pretty well. They may not have the European's encyclopaedic recall of every date in their history. But they are confident that they are acquainted with certain trends in their attitudes toward work and individual independence in the past, and about their current work lives. In short, they feel they are their own sociologists.

About the past, Americans know that the country saw a great sea change during the Depression, recognising for the first time the importance of the federal government and its role in halting or reversing economic downturns.

About the postwar period, they know that that's when they all became workaholics, putting in more hours and seeing their kids less than they used to (one thinks of author Arlie Hochschild's nationally known book, 'The Time Bind'). This overworked America is also the one that Europeans recognise and fear -- a stressed out, hyperactive place whose reckless competitiveness threatens the easy retirement of the French haulier and the German bricklayer.

But the sense of American self-knowledge is often illusory, as a new and wonderful volume published by Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks and Ben J Wattenberg shows. In 'The First Measured Century'* the authors present data confounding the stereotypes, suggesting that Americans are more mysterious than even they themselves know.

Consider the period of the Depression. The received wisdom here is that Americans were deeply impressed with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and felt that it proved the necessity of a federal government far bigger than any envisioned in the wild and happy days of, say, the Jacksonian period. This memory is important, because it is the underlying justification for federal expansions right up to the current day - we learned we needed this sort of thing in the Depression'.

But actual opinion polls from the time fail to back up this vision of support for state expansion. In September, 1935, or well into the Depression and New Deal, Gallup asked pollees the following question:

'Do you think expenditures by the government for relief and recovery are too little, too great, or just about right?'

A full 60 per cent said 'too great'; only 9 per cent said 'too little'. Yet the country remembered differently, and went on to expand New Deal programs, including the originally minimal national pension plan, Social Security -- all the while arguing that the consensus formed in the Depression mandated huge and permanent new outlays. What's more, as Caplow, Hicks and Wattenberg show, that great 'federal period', the Depression, wasn't really federal at all: at no time in the Depression years did Washington's outlays exceed those of states and cities.

Then there's the question of work, and the current image of the worked-to-death American. In fact, as the authors demonstrate, the share of men working beyond the age of 65 has dropped consistently throughout the course of the century. In 1900, 63 per cent of men over that age -- very old for the period -- were working or looking for work. By 1960, the rate of fellows in that category fell to one in four. Today, only 17 per cent of men over age 65 are on the work rolls. This despite the fact that these men can now expect to live close to two decades beyond that age.

As for the latchkey child, another staple of the American self-image, he too may not be quite so bereft as imagined. In 1924, 60 per cent of fathers reported they were able to spend one hour or less a day with their children, and 48 per cent of mothers said they spent less than two hours. By 1999 eight in ten fathers said they spent an hour or more with children, and seven in ten mothers said they spent two hours or more.

It seems too that for whatever daily neglect American kids suffer, they are handsomely rewarded in vacations: In 1998 more than 3m families visited Yellowstone Park, a tripling from early postwar levels. Other national parks saw similar increases. And we're not even going to mention Disney World.

This sort of revelatory work is typical of Messrs Caplow, Hicks and Wattenberg. Although Mr Wattenberg is best known for producing a book ('Values Matter Most') that so excited President Clinton that the President rang him in the middle of the night. He is also the author of many demographic and trend-oriented studies, including the equally revealing 1990 volume, 'An Unexpected Family Portrait', which reviewed census data from the prior 30 years. Mr Caplow has taken on the important job of continuing longstanding research of 'Middletown' (Muncie, Indiana), a midwestern town thought to represent the heart of American normalcy. But as the study indicates, normalcy is not always what it seems.

*'The First Measured Century: an Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000,' American Enterprise Institute Press. Those averse to tackling even this reader-friendly book can purchase the three-hour television show or an audio tape by calling (00)1-800-Play PBS or going to www.pbs.org/fmc.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

Available for order:

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