America in Perspective by Oxford Analytica (Houghton Mifflin: $19.95)
While "America in Perspective" may not be the most obvious diversion for a polar flight, it's crammed with arresting and well-documented information designed to make the reader an instant authority upon his arrival abroad. In remarkably jargon-free prose, a cohort of scholars has explored growth and change in American life, making their findings available in this single eminently readable volume.
The English group was originally retained by American Express, Bristol-Myers and Sun Oil to investigate and project social and political trends. Though these three corporations hoped the studies would provide insights into the immediate future and offer guidelines for their commercial projects and services, they received so much more than they expected that the results warranted publication. You don't have to be a multinational corporation to find "America in Perspective" valuable. Writers, academics, politicians and small business people can all benefit from the work; the editors keeping the general reader firmly in mind.
The book is neatly divided into four sections, each with its own succinct summary. The approach is inter-disciplinary, with research and writing teams composed of social and political scientists, economists and lawyers, though the relaxed style suggests assistance from humanities departments as well.
Beginning with demographic trends, the book moves smoothly into discussions of fertility, mortality and immigration; briskly on to an examination of "Changes in Life Chances: The Future of the American dream," continuing to an analysis of evolutions in family life, in religion and values, paying equal attention to trends and counter-trends.
The findings confirm some of our preconceptions, revise others, and demolish many. For example, though the doomsday prophets have foreseen a nation of the elderly and extremely old by the end of this century, the Oxford coalition finds the prospect not quite so bleak as painted. "The number of new retirees will increase only slowly in real terms, reflecting the declining birth rate immediately following World War I. The proportion of new retirees . . . will decline, but the proportion of 85 year olds will increase rapidly up to about 2010." People will live longer, but the ratio of vigorous and productive citizens to the inactive and dependent will not change appreciably. Contrary to the popular impression, today's newborn babe will not arrive with the national debt under his arm instead of the proverbial loaf of bread. He'll have his chance at yuppiedom, though "family incomes will no longer grow at past rates."
Eventually, however, we'll no longer be a predominantly middle class society, but will drift inexorably back towards extremes of wealth and poverty. Social and economic distinctions will resurface, though racial and ethnic discrimination will decline. "Holding one's own" may well replace "getting ahead" as a realistic expectation for many Americans; unsettling news but a factor that might contribute to renewed interest in non-materialistic goals.
Return to Mainstream
As far as religion is concerned, despite disturbing indications of a narrowing separation between church and state, private forms of faith "engaging but socially irrelevant" will continue to grow. Presumably disenchanted with extremism, many Americans will return to mainstream faiths, though their personal lives will continue to veer away from conventional models.
More surprising is Analytica's discovery that "the household will again become necessary as an economic unit at the very time when the social and psychological strains on the family are most severe." Though our idea of home and family are in the process of becoming radically reconstituted, the investigations suggest a return to home-centered projects. By far the most fascinating aspect of the book is the even-handed discussion of these apparent contradictions and their implications. Considering the fact that the study was commissioned by and for international business, the observers offer little to gladden the hearts of their patrons. "The motor of economic development can no longer be expected to drive through all social problems which call for vision and values."
Part II confronts political life, asking and answering the operative question "With society becoming so fragmented, will America be governable?" The writers seem reasonably certain that the American electorate will never again be neatly and clearly divided along geographical and occupational lines. Power will be increasingly diffused, conservative attitudes will prevail, differences among social groups will be exacerbated so that compromise will be ever harder to achieve. As ideals of assimilation and popular democracy become matters of nostalgia, our society will acquire a superficial resemblance to modern Europe, a tendency that could possibly revitalize our stagnating political system.
In conclusion, the authors agree that America is approaching a period of unprecedented self-interest. By judicious application of the information assembled and interpreted here, that trend could mean a general improvement in the quality of personal and national life. We are, after all, a society founded upon the idea of human perfectability, a notion with unique and still unfulfilled potential.