Faculty and Staff HDFS Research

Living on the edge

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

By Kathryn Stroppel

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,” from 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. 

The study’s legacy is a framework that evolved for understanding the human life course, a five-part set of principles that guide the book:  

  • We are all interconnected and linked to others from birth to death. 
  • Life experiences are different, and carry different consequences, depending on how old people are when they occur. 
  • Our lives are influenced by economic, cultural and social environments. 
  • Our ability to make choices and take actions affect the direction of our lives. 
  • Human development and aging are lifelong processes. 

The passion behind the project 

As Dylan sang in the 1960s, “The times they are a changin.” And although Rick and fellow co-authors had no idea just how much so when they began this book, its timing couldn’t be more poignant and, like any examination of history, enlightening. 

“There are so many things we see as true or understand about our times today that aren’t new at all. Even more, they’re rooted in a generation we have, to date, known very little about,” says Rick, a social scientist, life course researcher, author/editor of 13 books and the Barbara E. Knudson Endowed Chair and Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences in Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. 

As a young gay man and first-generation college student, he found that he was often an outsider to the worlds he was trying to navigate. The heavy expectations he felt for how life was supposed to unfold for someone like him were at odds with the things he wanted in life. 

“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. 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 American story is often portrayed as one of rugged individualism, but in his more than 30-year career, the one thing most reinforced about the human experience is this: The idea of the autonomous, independent person is a myth. 

“Our lives are heavily bound to the actions and resources of other people, just as theirs are bound to ours,” he says. “That’s especially true in family life, and it’s as true for childhood as it is for old age. It’s notably true in the United States, where the ideology of individualism is so strong, and yet private resources matter so much in determining people’s options and outcomes.  

“Relatively limited government support during adult life means that our well-being is intimately tied to whatever resources we can make or marshal through others. The interdependence is also found in how experiences in one period of life affect later ones, and how what is happening in one generation in a family or society affects others. 

“As a life course researcher, I am confronted with the stark realities of advantage and disadvantage and with how much these accumulate over life and across generations. And yet, I’m also witness to the fact that human beings can be extraordinarily resilient in the face of adversity and that people with privileged beginnings don’t always escape negative outcomes. 

“Life course research reveals both the bright sides and the dark sides of the human experience. This fuels the passion I feel around matters of social inequality.” 

Timeless lessons from the edge of change 

To be sure, many things are unique about the 1900 generation. But they are also a “hinge generation” between past and present: Dramatically different from generations before them, they initiate a set of changes that continue evolving in generations after them.  

One timeless theme relates to the experience of 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,” Rick says.  

“So often, in reading transcripts from those living in this generation, I felt that if I hadn’t known when the interviews were conducted, I could easily have assumed they were contemporary voices.” 

Some of these modern parallels include: 

  • Men feel the weight of the provider role and separation and even alienation from family life. They want to be better husbands and fathers. 
  • Women, many of whom had worked before WWII, feel the weight of family responsibility and desire more expressive men and more “companionate” marriages. 
  • Parents are concerned about raising their kids in a world they don’t understand and are worried about protecting them from life-changing risks. 
  • Families struggle to support one another and feel the private burdens of giving and receiving. These are families who in the first few decades of their lives did not have the government resources or programs we know today. The need for “charity” in the community or “public aid” brought shame.  
  • Families struggle to live together, especially when parents move in with adult children. 
  • Parents must make strategic and sometimes difficult decisions about family planning due in part to finances. 
  • The ingredients of a good marriage include marital compatibility, alignment with respect to finances, sex, child discipline, and relationships with family. 

Another thing that’s as true across generations, he says, is people’s resiliency, seen most recently in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of reimagining nearly every aspect of living, learning, loving, working and playing. 

“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.”  

Times such as these reveal the best and the worst in people, he says. “Some are able to adapt, while others struggle. In the Great Depression, for example, some of these families bear little resemblance to the images and narrative of the time. Some actually profit, while others are left devastated and take many years to recover. 

“They do mostly manage to come back economically, especially because of the war – they have a dramatic swing from the depths of the depression to the heights of postwar prosperity, one after the other. But the emotional legacy lasts their whole lives – and in very gendered ways. By later life, women have much stronger emotional health, and men more often are depressed and have earlier mortality. Women seem to more easily stretch their roles and fill in as necessary; men have a hard time not being able to do what they’re expected to do.” 

Just as this 1900 generation was influenced by the nuances of their times – and their parents, who were trapped between the Victorian age and post WWII era – so, too, are those who follow. Six generations have been observed since 1900 – the GI Generation, Silent Generation and Baby Boomers, followed by Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. But does slicing the population into generational segments with clever names really matter? 

“We recognize generations because of the differences in the reality of lives and world views affected by history, social change and parenting. But these are also social constructs that can exaggerate or impose differences that aren’t all that meaningful,” he says.  

“It’s sort of an arbitrary game, because there’s extraordinary variability within the group, where things such as social class, race and gender may matter more than one’s location in history. But these conversations get us thinking about history – and that matters.” 

Want to learn more? Watch and listen as Rick shares anecdotes from the book in a recorded webinar available on the college’s YouTube channel