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Think life is hard now? Look back 100 years

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By 1915, the United States was the world’s richest nation — and yet most Americans were dirt poor by today’s standards. Adjusted for inflation, men’s average wages were about a third of what full-time workers now earn. The average workweek in manufacturing hovered around 50 hours, and many employees worked a half day on Saturday. Less than a third of homes had electric lights. Less than a fifth of the adult population were high school graduates.

How we’ve changed.

Every so often, we need to take note. For all of today’s pessimism, America’s long-term trends are mostly positive. We tend to forget that and the parallel lessons. First, dramatic change is a constant; the notion that we’re living in a period of exceptional upheaval is a shortsighted fiction. And second, America has a solid record of adapting to change, albeit with some setbacks and regrets.

So let’s recall gains of the past century. The figures above and below come mainly from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its flagship publication — the Monthly Labor Review — with an article by economist Carol Boyd Leon comparing 1915 with 2015. It’s a fascinating peek at the past that raises important questions about the future.

A century ago, the U.S. was a country of about 100 million people, just shy of a third of today’s 321 million. Then as now, immigration was near record levels, constituting about 13 percent of the population in both periods. Then as now, this was controversial. But the fact that we absorbed the newcomers then suggests that, despite many conflicts, we will do so again.

Since 1915, one vast improvement has been housing. Although the rich and the upper-middle class often inhabited spacious homes, that was not true of the lower-middle and working classes. Renters outnumbered owners, roughly 80 percent to 20 percent. Contrast that with the 64 percent of households who are now owners, even after the mass foreclosures of the burst housing bubble.

What they rented then was often crowded and dirty. In 1915, “few of the homes of working-class families had running water, and almost none had hot running water,” writes Leon. Heating was typically by “a potbelly stove or by a coal furnace in the basement.” For two-thirds of homes without electricity, lighting came from kerosene lamps or natural gas. These homes required more upkeep. Homes dependent on coal or wood for heating were “harder to clean because of (the) soot.” Similarly, the “small size of iceboxes meant more trips to the grocery store.”

Given the incessant demands of housework and child-rearing, few women had jobs. In 1920, their labor force participation rate — the share of women over 14 who had employment or were seeking it — was 23 percent, almost a quarter of men’s rate of 85 percent. Today, women’s rate of 57 percent is not far from men’s 69 percent.

Men also had it much harder. Almost two-thirds of jobs were split evenly between farming and manufacturing. These were generally more dangerous than today’s jobs. In 1913, the Labor Department counted 23,000 deaths from industrial accidents, a rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers. The most recent data on all occupations show a death rate of 3.3 workers per 100,000, a decline of 95 percent.

Not only was work more dangerous; it was also more insecure. “Factory-workers hours could be shortened from one day to the next,” writes Leon, “leaving workers with a severely reduced paycheck.”

The way we were in 1915 no longer describes the way we are. Some of today’s problems stem from yesterday’s successes. Take health care. In 1915, life expectancy at birth was 54.5 years; now it is 78.8. Infant mortality has dropped from one in 10 babies to one in 168. On the other side of the ledger, today’s high health costs are a major challenge.

Modern appliances, cars, airplanes and universal electrification have transformed everyday life, as has more protective government (which has reduced, though not eliminated, insecurity). The question now is whether we will be as adaptive in the next 100 years as in the last. History offers a cautious case for optimism.

Robert J. Samuelson writes an economics column for The Washington Post. He is the author of “The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence” (2008) and “The Good Life and Its Discontents” (1995). © 2016, Washington Post Writers Group