A 20th Century Portrait of US - by the Numbers

By Peter Grier , writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 15, 1999 | Go to article overview

A 20th Century Portrait of US - by the Numbers


Peter Grier , writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


One hundred years ago, the United States had about one-quarter the population it does now. Citizens were much less educated, and more likely to be men. Toledo, Ohio, was bigger than Los Angeles.

There were no televisions, no radios, no Pokmon cards, no ship- size SUVs. Dot.com communications still meant the telegraph.

It wasn't just a simpler time. As outlined in the US Census Bureau's new 1999 Statistical Abstract, it was the other side of the moon.

"To date, the 20th century has to be the most dynamic in our history, and these statistics paint a picture of rapid and massive change," says Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt.

Take the US population itself. In 1900, about 76 million people resided in the country. The post-World War II baby-boomer generation is bigger than that, all by itself. Today, there are 77 million Americans between the ages of 35 and 54. The nation's total population is 270 million - almost four times larger than it was 100 years ago.

And women constitute a larger percentage of that population. In 1900, about 51 percent of US residents were male and 49 percent female. In 1998 that split has been almost exactly reversed, with women gaining the 51 percent upper hand.

The change did not occur because women are better suited than men to the stresses of Information Age. They may be - but what has really happened over the past 100 years is a change in where US residents are born.

At the turn of the 19th century, immigrants were flooding into America from Italy, Ireland, and other Old World countries.

"Most immigrants were men," notes Census Bureau statistician Lars Johanson. They were young and single, or left their families behind.

Immigration - primarily from Asia and Latin America - is still significant today, and still predominantly male. But it does not account for as much of the population.

Working women

The march of married women into the workforce is another powerful social trend that has been long at work in the United States. It is not just a phenomenon of the postwar years, as the statistical abstract makes clear.

In 1900, there were only 769,000 married women in the civilian labor force. By 1950, there were 8.6 million. Today, there are 34 million - meaning that more than 60 percent of married women work outside the home.

Women's' educational attainment has risen along with their work experience. In 1940 - the earliest year the Census Bureau measured - only 3.7 percent of women had completed four years of college. Some 12.2 percent had fewer than five years of elementary school.

By 1998, more than 22 percent of women had undergraduate college degrees, and only 1.6 percent had not finished elementary school.

Men received somewhat more schooling than women in 1900, and still do today. Their four-year college rate is 26.5 percent.

That Americans have moved westward and southward over the century is not news, but the explosive extent of that migration comes across clearly in census figures. …

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