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Who We Are Now: The Changing Face of America in the 21st Century

Who We Are Now: The Changing Face of America in the 21st Century

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Who We Are Now: The Changing Face of America in the 21st Century

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363 pagine
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Oct 22, 2013


A revealing view of America and its citizens at the dawn of a new century, by the author of the New York Times Notable Book Who We Are

For more than two centuries, America has taken stock every decade, producing a statistical self-portrait of our population. In Who We Are Now, Sam Roberts identifies and illuminates the trends and social shifts changing the face of America today.

America is in the midst of a fundamental transformation. The nation's complexion changed significantly over the twentieth century, creating more varied and intermingled identities, and with the baby boomers nearing retirement and their children entering college, the graying of America has been balanced, precariously, by the youth culture. And in the wake of welfare reform in the 1990s, the fate of the working poor has become all the more tenuous. Roberts masterfully weaves stories of individuals from all corners of the country alongside the data from the latest U.S. census, creating a compelling guided tour of the places, personalities, and politics that will shape America as the new century stretches before us.

Oct 22, 2013

Informazioni sull'autore

Sam Roberts is urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times. He is the host of The New York Times Close Up, an hour-long weekly news and interview program on cable channel NY1 that he inaugurated in 1992. He is the author or editor of eight previous books, including a new edition of The Brother. He lives in New York City. Follow @ObjectsofNYC or visit

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Who We Are Now - Sam Roberts



Who We Are Now

Who is the average American?

In 1900, he was a twenty-six-year-old man who lived in rented quarters in a rural community in the eastern United States. Only 1 in 20 Americans lived alone then. About the same small proportion of seventeen-year-olds had a high school diploma. More than a third of all adults worked on a farm and fewer than 1 in 5 women worked outside the home. Most Americans were married, and fewer than 1 in 100 were divorced. About 1 of every 7 Americans were foreign-born, a slightly higher proportion than the number of Americans who were nonwhite.

If 1900 seems like ancient history, consider 1950, when you or your parents or your grandparents were growing up. By then, the typical American was a thirty-year-old woman, still living east of the Mississippi, but now in a city and in her family’s own home. Although the proportion of women who were divorced had doubled in a half-century (to about 1 in 50), the average woman was married and, as a result, wasn’t working outside the home. The proportion of foreign-born Americans had fallen by half, and about 10 percent of the population was nonwhite.

Today, the average American is still a woman, aged thirty-five (if not a little older), living in a metropolitan area of the West or the South, more likely than not in a suburb. She owns her own home and probably lives with only one or two other people. More than a quarter of all Americans live alone. About 1 in 10 adults are divorced. More than 80 percent are high school graduates, and more than 3 in 5 women are in the workforce. About 1 in 4 Americans are black, Hispanic, or Asian.

By the time the twentieth century drew to a close, America was an altogether different place from when that century began. The changes that have reshaped society have been more than technological. The population changed, too. It had doubled in size by 1950 and then doubled again by 2000. Immigration altered the nation’s complexion time and again. The mobility of native-born Americans and newcomers alike produced urban sprawl and seismic shifts in political power. Revolutions in civil rights and women’s rights generated jarring upheavals in higher education, the workforce, and the family. Many of the trends that drove those twentieth-century changes accelerated in the 1990s, transforming America even more dynamically, redefining us as a nation—in some ways that were predicted and in many that were entirely unexpected—and posing profound challenges as we embark on a new century, one too young to be christened yet.

How we evolved, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century and during the transformations of the 1990s, helps explain who we are now and what makes the United States unique among nations.

*   *   *

They were called the good years, the historian Walter Lord recalled of the dawn of the twentieth century, not because everything going on in America at the time was in fact so good or that everyone benefited from its fruits, but because of the unshakable faith that what was wrong could be corrected and what was good would get even better. These years were good, Lord wrote, because, whatever the trouble, people were sure they could fix it.

Most of those people, Americans, could still trace their ancestry to England, Ireland, and Germany. Many were newly minted immigrants or their children, a growing number of them bringing new languages and unfamiliar customs from eastern and southern Europe. Some, largely confined to the South, were the descendants of slaves whose faith in what could be fixed and what could not had been tested mightily since the Civil War, which had ended only thirty-five years earlier. (More than a million veterans of that war were still alive.) The century had opened with Queen Victoria still on her throne, and, as the historian Henry Steele Commager wrote, Already she had given her name to an era, and already men were beginning to pronounce that era the best, the most prosperous, and the most enlightened in history, forgetting or ignoring the poverty and misery, the cruel oppression and wars, that had stained its history.

For the most part, those optimistic people disregarded the debate (as most of the world did a hundred years later) over whether the new century began in 1900 or in 1901. At midnight on December 31, 1899, they ushered in what they and their descendants and successive waves of immigrants would transform into the American Century—a self-fulfilling prophecy first proclaimed by the journalist Henry Luce before the century was even half over. While other nations stood still or shrank or broke apart, America reinvented itself. It began the century uniquely as an experiment in racial and ethnic coexistence and would celebrate its success one hundred years later as the world’s most multicultural society and a model for what other countries might eventually become.

It is more than half a century since Carlyle said of the population of England that its workers were ‘understood to be the strongest, the cunningest, and the willingest our earth ever had,’ a New York Times editorial recalled in 1900. "The praise was then unchallenged and unchallengeable. But in the interval the population of the United States has not only vastly increased beyond that of the British Islands, but its workmen have become clearly the superiors of the British workmen in all the qualities Carlyle mentions.

Only three political systems—the British Empire, the Chinese Empire and the Russian Empire—have unquestionably greater population than the United States, the Times intoned, adding confidently, For a young nation we are doing very well.

In the nineteenth century, the young nation’s workmen had perfected and mass-produced the telegraph, telephones, and electric lights. Still, on the threshold of the twentieth, when the Times envisioned a still brighter dawn of civilization, who would have imagined what innovations the coming decades would deliver: radio, television, the airplane. When the century began, Americans owned barely 8,000 private automobiles. When it ended, for the first time personal vehicles registered in the United States outnumbered licensed drivers.

Between 1890 and 1900, the population of the forty-five states had increased by a staggering 21 percent to 76 million. Los Angeles soared in rank from the 135th largest city to the 36th largest, and nearly 1 in 3 Americans now lived in a city. Whites accounted for nearly 88 percent of the population (the colored included blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and American Indians), but the proportion of foreigners—9 in 10 of them from Europe—now matched the highs of the 1850s and was rising with no ceiling in sight. In Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco, more than three-quarters were either foreign-born or the sons and daughters of immigrants. In North Dakota, more than 1 in 4 people were foreign-born, the highest proportion of any state. While the proportion of eligible voters who cast their ballots in the 1900 presidential election would fall to 74 percent from 79 percent in 1896 (women could vote in only four states and senators still weren’t popularly elected), Americans still had plenty of issues to disagree about, not the least of which was whether unbridled immigration would mongrelize America or whether, regardless of social consequences, the influx of foreign labor was vital for industry. Concerns were being raised about the imbalance of wealth (U.S. Steel would be formed the following year, the first business capitalized at $1 billion) and about the challenges posed by a secular and scientific society to religion.

But these were, after all, the good years. There is not a man here who does not feel 400 percent bigger in 1900 than he did in 1896, Senator Chauncey Depew proclaimed, bigger intellectually, bigger hopefully, bigger patriotically, bigger in the breast from the fact that he is a citizen of a country that has become a world power for peace, for civilization, and for the expansion of its industries and the products of its labor.

Still, after the staggering gains that America registered in the 1890s, how much better could things get? New territories had just been spun into America’s orbit by the Spanish-American War and five states would still be admitted to the Union, but the notion that the frontier was closed and that the nation was filling up faster than anyone had imagined placed a damper on the promise of manifest destiny. Thomas Edison, for one, refused to speculate about America’s future. I don’t care to play prophet to the twentieth century, he said. It’s too large an undertaking.

*   *   *

Edison was right.

Writing in 1950 about the first fifty years of the twentieth century, Henry Steele Commager declared: One by one the buoyant hopes of the Victorians were doomed to disappointment. Within less than half a century prosperity gave way to ruin, universal peace to universal war, certainty to fear, security to insecurity, the ideal of progress to the doubt of survival. Never before in history had such bright hopes been so ruthlessly shattered.

Before the century was even half over, America had been sobered and steeled by two world wars and a depression and five decades of mind-bending scientific achievement that climaxed in the atomic bomb—a fearsome device that delivered promise and peril—and gave rise to a superpower rivalry that would define America’s foreign and domestic policy for much of the next fifty years.

While Henry Luce had proclaimed the American Century a decade earlier, whose century was it, really, at least so far? Luce’s own Time magazine declared Winston Churchill the Man of the Half-Century in 1950 and though native-born or naturalized Americans (Roosevelt, Wilson, the Wright Brothers, Einstein) were disproportionately represented on most Top Ten lists of men (not women) who had reshaped the world in the half-century, they were still largely relegated to a minority (outnumbered by the likes of Churchill, Gandhi, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and others) among those having had the greatest impact for good or evil.

Preaching from the pulpit of Riverside Church in Manhattan on the morning of January 8, 1950, the Reverend Dr. Robert J. McCracken gloomily contrasted the good years when the century began with civilization’s precarious condition at its halfway point. In 1900 the march of humanity was seen as a straightforward climb and all the omens appeared propitious, he said. In the interval, man has annihilated space and split the atom, but nobody is predicting, as many were doing at the opening of the century, that he will soon banish poverty, abolish disease and usher in an era of peace and plenty. Instead, the complaint is that it requires a combination of audacity and faith to assume that civilization has any future. The high hopes and extravagant self-assurance of fifty years ago are gone, and in their place is a debilitating sense of frustration and futility.

Yet, as Commager also wrote, notwithstanding war, ruin and misery, the first half of the twentieth century saw spectacular developments in medical science that saved millions of children, extended life, wiped out plagues and diseases, and alleviated pain. It saw a general spread of education and, on a somewhat obvious level, of enlightenment. It saw, for the Western world at least, an improvement in standards of living, a decline in child labor, a release from long hours of drudgery for adults and a general diffusion of new methods of entertainment and recreation. For the majority of mankind, and except in time of war, life was easier and pleasanter than it had ever been before.

And the majority could look forward to the prospect that life would become even easier and pleasanter in the future—if the planet managed somehow to survive and humanity was permitted to prosper in a world vastly improved by benevolent science. (This prospect was giddily heralded a few days before New Year’s Eve 1949 when the New York Times proclaimed on its front page: New Einstein Theory Gives a Master Key to Universe.) Commager warned that the compelling consideration is that in the twentieth century population is increasing and basic resources are decreasing faster than ever before. But William F. Ogburn, a leading sociologist, predicted that by the end of the century the number of Americans would grow modestly and sustainably from about 151 million to between 175 million and 200 million, which meant that the United States, from the population standpoint alone, seems assured of a rising living standard.

Without hinting at the upheavals that would reconstitute the typical American household, he cautioned that while nutritional and other factors may have a great deal to do with unhappiness, the social institution most closely associated with happiness or unhappiness is the family.

*   *   *

A typical American born in 1900 would not have lived to see 1950—life expectancy at birth was only about forty-seven years (and only thirty-three for blacks). But by midcentury, the average infant born in America could reasonably expect to still be alive during the first two or three decades of the new millennium. During his lifetime, he would witness a transformation in the United States that would prove as unnerving, if not quite as cataclysmic, as the changes that distinguished the first half of the twentieth century. By 1950, for the first time, more Americans owned their own homes than rented. Well more than half had telephones, but fully a third lacked complete indoor plumbing. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans owned a television. Only 1 in 3 had even a high school diploma. The vast majority of families—nearly 4 in 5—were made up of married couples and, less than a decade after World War II had drawn more women to offices and factories, chances are that the only work a married woman did was as a full-time homemaker. America still counted more private household laundresses than librarians, more farmers than laborers, more blacksmiths than psychotherapists.

In 1950, the proportion of households with five or more people dropped below 25 percent and the share of two-person households climbed past that level. Between 1950 and 2000, the proportion of married-couple households would plunge from nearly 4 in 5 to barely 1 in 2. Married couples with children accounted for 55 percent of family households in 1950, a figure that the baby boom would boost to nearly 60 percent in 1960; in 2000, their share would fall to about 45 percent. In 1950, among women—including war widows—who headed a household without a spouse present, 34 percent had children at home. In 2000, nearly 59 percent would. In the decades after 1950, the share of people living alone would soar from fewer than 1 in 10 to more than 1 in 4.

In 1950, for the first time, a little more than half the population lived in a metropolitan area. By 2000, that would be true for 4 out of 5 Americans. The post–World War II spurt in affordable tract housing in former potato fields on Long Island on what the historian Kenneth Jackson dubbed the nation’s crabgrass frontier in sparsely populated places sparked suburbanization. And that unbridled stampede for the American Dream dispersed people—white people, mostly—so that by 2000 the share of Americans living in the nation’s central cities would shrink below the level in 1950. By 2000, the proportion of Americans living in the suburbs would more than double, to 50 percent.

Population and, with it, political power, still resided mostly in the eastern half of the United States in 1950. Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio were still among the five largest states (after New York and California, which had just edged into second place). Among the ten largest cities, only Los Angeles and St. Louis were west of the Mississippi.

For half a century, the nation had been hailed as a melting pot, absorbing immigrants from every corner of Europe. But the degree of diversity pales compared to today. Only about 1 in 14 Americans had been born abroad, most of them from the same stock as the generations that had preceded them here. The big-city balanced political ticket typically consisted of an Irishman, an Italian, and a Pole or a Jew. Racial diversity was largely a matter of black and white, with whites just beginning their exodus from the central cities to the suburbs and the vast majority of blacks still segregated in the South.

Early in the twentieth century, only one state outside the South—Arizona—had a population that was more than 10 percent nonwhite. In 1950, the only states where more than 3 in 10 people were nonwhite were in the South. By 2000, the population of only ten states in the entire country would be less than 10 percent nonwhite and the population of five non-Southern states—Alaska, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and New York—would count nonwhites as over 30 percent.

*   *   *

America keeps changing. More than 281 million Americans were counted by the latest federal census on April 1, 2000—nearly four times the number in 1900 and nearly double the population in 1950. In the 1990s, the population grew by the biggest ten-year numerical leap ever. But we’re already even bigger than that, even in the moments since you began reading this book. Every eight seconds, another American is born. Every 12 seconds, one dies. As each 25 seconds ticks by, there is a net gain of one immigrant from overseas. And so every 12 seconds, the nation’s population clock records a net increase of one more American overall.

In contrast to most other developed countries, the United States has grown in total population in recent decades. And the reason for this, to a large degree, is immigration. Foreigners keep coming to this country, as they have for hundreds of years, because as refugees they can escape discrimination or death, or simply because, like during the good years when the twentieth century began, they seek the best opportunity to improve their own lives and those of their children.

As recently as 1970, the number of foreign-born people living in the United States—under 10 million, or 4.7 percent of the total population—was the lowest of any decade in the twentieth century. In the 1990s alone, the number soared by 57 percent to constitute more than 11 percent of the total population—below the historic highs in the first decade of the century but the highest proportion of foreign-born since the 1930s. In 2000, 56 million Americans—or 1 in 5—were foreign-born or the children of foreign-born parents.

This latest influx has also fundamentally altered America’s racial and ethnic dynamic: for the first time, blacks are no longer the nation’s biggest minority group. Jose is the no. 1 name for baby boys in Texas, no. 2 in Arizona, and no. 3 in California. Smith remains the most common surname in the United States, but the top 50 now includes Garcia, Martinez, Rodriguez, Hernandez, Lopez, Gonzalez, and Perez.

For the first time in the twentieth century, the census counted more people in each of the fifty states at the end of the 1990s than when the decade began. California’s population swelled by more than 4 million people, Texas’s by 3.9 million, and Florida’s by 3 million. Spillover from those states, and the influx of foreigners, propelled the rate of growth among their neighbors. Between 1980 and 1990, Nevada’s population exploded by 66 percent—the highest growth rate of any state, followed by Arizona and Colorado. For the first time in the twentieth century, Georgia’s growth rate outpaced Florida’s. Even states in the Midwest, which had been hemorrhaging population for decades, bounced back. Missouri’s growth rate was the highest recorded since the last decade of the nineteenth century. Nebraska and Iowa grew faster than in any decade since the 1910s.

The nation’s biggest cities grew twice as fast in the 1990s than in the 1980s. The population of eight of the ten largest cities expanded (Philadelphia shrank and Detroit tried valiantly but failed to avoid the dubious distinction of becoming the first city to slip below one million). New York City edged past 8 million for the first time and Chicago, reversing a fifty-year trend, gained 112,000. Americans are about as likely today as they were in 1950 to live in a big city, but the chances are greater that the city will be in the South or the

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