No one, of course, sets out to be average. We're all about skyscrapers and Big Gulps and $200 sneakers that promise an extra edge on the court. Peoria, Ill., once paid a p.r. firm $60,000 to help counter its image as the most average city in the country, an image that "really hurts," said a local official. Who'd settle for being the most like everyone else?
Even finding the Average American is a challenge, since means and medians and majorities can hide as much as they reveal: pity the statistician whose job it is to flatten us into a trend. The average household has 2.6 members, but most families prefer their children whole. On average we are 36.6 years old, but in reality we are newborn and toddling, aged and wise. We exercise close to the recommended 20 minutes a daybut that's because 17% of us exercise for well over an hour, while the rest of us scarcely stir at all. The vast majority of Americans believe in God, and more than 90% own a Bible, but only half can name a single Gospel, and 10% think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. So what's the average state of our eternal souls?
But if the perfect average is a mirage, you can still learn something by comparing yourself to the crowd. Depending on how closely you cleave to the statistical norm, you prefer figure-skating to nascar, live in the state where you were born, spend more money in restaurants than grocery stores and are just as happy as you would be if you earned 20 times your salary. At some point today you will say a prayer, not floss, take a shower for 10 minutes but not sing in it, drive an eight-year-old car to work, spend 95% of the day indoors and 21⁄2 hours online, consume 20 teaspoons of added sugar and not save any money. On weekends, people over 75 spend 11⁄2 hours reading, while those from 15 to 19 spend seven minutes. On Thanksgiving, 88% will eat turkey; most Americans prefer the white meat; the rest of the world, the dark. The average family has more televisions than peoplebut we spend about the same amount of time watching them as we did 40 years ago.
Our times have changed since 1965, when the typical family had a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother; now about 20% of families do. Economists warned in 1999 that working parents had 22 fewer hours of family time than they did 30 years before, which set off alarms about neglected latchkey children growing up loose and wild compared with Ozzie and Harriet'sexcept that the warnings were flatly wrong. Parents are both working harder and spending more time with their childrenespecially fathers, who spend 153% more time each week on child care than in 1965.
That means something else has to give, yet we are not sleeping less, nor do we have less free time in general. Look closely at the snapshots, and you see the old rules fading: that you can't be in two places at once, that there are only so many hours in a day. When Mom and Dad are standing in the school bleachers, cheering the baseball team while e-mailing their marketing team, are they at work or at play? We watch the news while cooking dinner, whiten our teeth while we sleep. Modern parents multitask about 40 more hours a week than did their counterparts in 1975. Time spent solely with other adults has fallen, particularly with the adult you are married to: pure spousal time is down 26% since 1975.
When you peel back the numbers and look at the lives underneath, it turns out there's much to love about Average, and much to learn, as Kevin O'Keefe discovered when he set out to write The Average American: The Extraordinary Search for the Nation's Most Ordinary Citizen. We may be fascinated by the rich and famous, but polls show we don't want to be them: the average American lives 13 years longer than the average celebrity, who is four times as likely to commit suicide. What O'Keefe found in his travels was that being average usually means having a certain balance in your life. "Once you explain it in those terms," he says, "it's a pretty fulfilling thing for most Americans." Think of it as the wisdom of crowds, and pretty soon the average just might become your ideal.