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Living on the edge

New book explores what we can learn about 20th century Americans – and ourselves

Modern America was born of the revolutionary social change and uncertainty that defines the 1900s, including mass migration, a slew of scientific and technological breakthroughs, five wars, and economic booms and busts, including the Great Depression. 

Despite this much history packed into a single century, relatively little has been written or understood about the daily lives of those who lived it – until now. In a book that was a decade in the making, Professor Rick Settersten explores how a rapidly changing society affected American lives and the imprint it has left on us in his new book, “Living on the edge: An American generation’s journey through the twentieth century” (University of Chicago Press). 

Rick, Oregon State University’s 2021 University Distinguished Professor nominee; and co-authors Glen H. Elder Jr., author of the classic book “Children of the Great Depression,” and Lisa D. Pearce, an expert in family and gender, provide unprecedented insight into the lives of real people navigating the 1900s by drawing on a once-in-a-lifetime data archive known as the Berkeley Guidance Study. Providing an intimate view into this generation’s social origins through education, marriage, childbearing, employment and their later years, this landmark study, which began in Berkeley in the late 1920s, eventually included more than 200 couples and their children studied in considerable detail across most of the 20th century. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by life’s rhythms, especially expectations for accomplishing transitions such as finishing school, leaving home, finding work, getting partnered, having children or retiring – and what happens when people fall off-time or actively reject these scripts,” he says. “How much do people get to make their lives or have their lives made for them? Why are certain pathways open to some but closed to others? How are those pathways determined by the times in which we live? This book gets at all of these themes.” 

The book also draws comparisons from 1900 Americans to Americans today, particularly in regards to rapid social change.  

“This kind of change leaves us deeply unsettled, that we can’t keep pace with what’s going on in the world around us, and that our well-being is fragile and our futures uncertain,” he says. “The pandemic has reminded people and societies today of a world they forgot – a time when long and relatively healthy lives – even life itself – could not be taken for granted. People have learned that they need each other. They’ve realized that their well-being rests on the stable functioning of government and institutions. They have learned that the sense of a normal, expectable life can quickly come undone.”  

Read more in the spring issue of the Oregon Stater alumni magazine out soon. 

Learn more by attending two upcoming webinars featuring Professor Rick Settersten. 

  • Rick will present “Living on the edge: Rapid social change and uncertainty” at 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 2, via Zoom. Register on the OSUAA website
  • Joined by co-authors, he’ll speak from 1-2 p.m. Friday, March 12, via Zoom, as part of the CPHHS Research Seminar series.  

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