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Numbers of the Present Take Peak Into Future

January 01, 1986|I. A. LEWIS | Lewis is director of the Los Angeles Times Poll. and

The American People by Bryant Robey (Truman Talley/Dutton: $22.50)

Bryant Robey's book, "The American People," is filled with fascinating facts. For example:

Half of all the women in the United States who have at least four years of college are childless.

Four times more people claim to be 100 than probably are.

People who wear glasses are better educated.

Only a minority of farmers today live on their farms.

Before the GI Bill, the average woman was better educated than the average man.

Fifty percent of bartenders and editors are now women.

Not that "The American People" is some sort of Irving Wallace compendium of trivia. Robey has embedded these curiosa --and hundreds more just as engaging--in a remarkably balanced description of us Americans, making a sustained effort to give them significance. And significant they are, especially because the last several decades in America have been characterized by massive social changes that are as important as any in our history.

A Growing Force

For one thing, as he points out, women are becoming increasingly more important as a force in our society. They have demanded, and are now on the way to winning, an independence and an influence unmatched anywhere else in the world.

They have gone to work in a way that is unprecedented: For every 10 new jobs created in the United States since 1970, six have gone to women. They have also insisted on more education; so much so that, during the last decade, female enrollment at the college level has increased 65%. Today, women outnumber men in college and 45% of graduate students are female.

But, according to Robey, the founding editor of American Demographics magazine, the growing importance of women in our society is only one of the 10 major trends that are shaping this nation.

Our society will be dominated by the concerns of a baby boom that is entering middle age, he says, influencing American tastes, spending and saving patterns, use of leisure time, and government and industry. The general educational level of the country will continue to rise, and because education alters attitudes and behavior, those who fail to participate will find themselves further removed from the mainstream of society.

New Labor Trends

New living arrangements are emerging, and family members as individuals will take precedence over the traditional family. The labor force, which once could be described in blue-collar or white-collar terms, now reflects the steady growth of the service sector with fractures along new fault lines that separate high-education, high-skill jobs and low-education, low-skill areas. And along with these changes in the labor force, the earnings gap is widening: Two-earner couples are becoming the new rich, and women who must support families by themselves are becoming the new poor.

The origins of immigrants are changing, and the cultural differences that result are greater now than they were when immigrants came from Central Europe. People and jobs are spreading outward: During the last decade the population of small towns and villages grew at its fastest rate since the 19th Century. But regional differences are diminishing and the flow of Americans across the country is creating a nationwide economy and culture to an extent that was unknown two decades ago. At the same time, international trends are becoming more important and while most Americans still look to Europe for their heritage America's future may lie in less familiar territory.

A Book of Statistics

All of this is pretty heady stuff. It suggests that, embedded in all this data, one can hope to discover secrets that may foretell the future. But if "The American People" somehow promises a bit more than it fulfills, that is not Robey's fault. This is, after all, a book of statistics. It deals with facts and demographic status and what sociologists like to call "behaviors."

But we want to know more than that about the future: We want to know how it has felt to have been part of this incredible decade and, by extension, how it will feel to live in the next one. We want to know what our attitudes, our values and our beliefs will be like.

And to find out things like that, a more extensive body of information will be needed than is collected by that most estimable of government agencies, the U.S. Bureau of the Census. What is needed is lots more information derived from longitudinal studies of poll data over extended periods of time.

But, unfortunately, public opinion research is only now entering its second half-century and there has been far too little attention paid to the study of social indicators. Much more needs to be done before we can guess at what the future will bring.

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