How Much Has America Changed Since 1900?

Census Bureau Reports on 100 Years in America

Horses and wagons on New Orleans Street in 1900
New Orleans Street Scene in 1900. Jonathan Kirn / Getty Images Archive

Since 1900, America and Americans have experienced tremendous changes in both the makeup of the population and in how people live their lives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1900, most people living in the United States were male, under 23 years old, lived in the country and rented their homes. Almost half of all the people in the U.S. lived in households with five or more other people.

Today, most people in the U.S. are female, 35 years old or older, live in metropolitan areas and own their own home. Most people in the U.S. now either live alone or in households with no more than one or two other people.

These are just the top-level changes reported by the Census Bureau in their 2000 report titled Demographic Trends in the 20th Century. Released during the bureau's 100th anniversary year, the report tracks trends in population, housing and household data for the nation, regions and states.

"Our goal was to produce a publication that appeals to people interested in the demographic changes that shaped our nation in the 20th century and to those interested in the numbers underlying those trends," said Frank Hobbs, who co-authored the report with Nicole Stoops. "We hope it will serve as a valuable reference work for years to come."

Some highlights of the report include:

Population Size and Geographic Distribution

  • The U.S. population grew by more than 205 million people during the century, more than tripling from 76 million in 1900 to 281 million in 2000.
  • As the population grew, the geographical population center shifted 324 miles west and 101 miles south, from Bartholomew County, Indiana, in 1900 to its current location in Phelps County, Missouri.
  • In every decade of the century, the population of the Western states grew faster than the populations of the other three regions.
  • Florida's population rank rose more than that of any other state, catapulting it from 33rd to 4th place in state rankings. Iowa's population ranking dropped the furthest, from 10th in the nation in 1900 to 30th in 2000.

Age and Sex

  • Children under 5 years old represented the largest five-year age group in 1900 and again in 1950; but in 2000 the largest groups were 35 to 39 and 40 to 44.
  • The percentage of the U.S. population age 65 and over increased in every census from 1900 (4.1 percent) to 1990 (12.6 percent), then declined for the first time in Census 2000 to 12.4 percent.
  • From 1900 to 1960, the South had the highest proportion of children under 15 and the lowest proportion of people 65 and over, making it the country's "youngest" region. The West grabbed that title in the latter part of the century.

Race and Hispanic Origin

  • At the beginning of the century, only 1-in-8 U.S. residents were of a race other than white; by the end of the century, the ratio was 1-in-4.
  • The Black population remained concentrated in the South, and the Asian and Pacific Islander population in the West through the century, but these regional concentrations declined sharply by 2000.
  • Among racial groups, the Indigenous and Alaska Native population had the highest percentage under age 15 for most of the 20th century.
  • From 1980 to 2000, the Hispanic-origin population, which may be of any race, more than doubled.
  • The total minority population people of Hispanic origin or of races other than white increased by 88 percent between 1980 and 2000 while the non-Hispanic white population grew by only 7.9 percent.

Housing and Household Size

  • In 1950, for the first time, more than half of all occupied housing units were owned instead of rented. The homeownership rate increased until 1980, decreased slightly in the 1980s and then rose again to its highest level of the century in 2000 reaching 66 percent.
  • The 1930s was the only decade when the proportion of owner-occupied housing units declined in every region. The largest increase in homeownership rates for each region then occurred in the next decade when the economy recovered from the Depression and experienced post-World War II prosperity.
  • Between 1950 and 2000, married-couple households declined from more than three-fourths of all households to just over one-half.
  • The proportional share of one-person households increased more than households of any other size. In 1950, one-person households represented 1-in-10 households; by 2000, they comprised 1-in-4. 

Changes Since 2000

Over the two decades since 2000, the United States has seen technological advancements, demographic shifts, and major changes in public opinion. Based on Census Bureau data and independent surveys and demographic analyses, here are some of the more significant ways in which the country and its people have changed since the beginning of the 21st century.

Personal Technology

From smartphones to social media, personal use of technology has become commonplace. In 2019, nine-of-ten U.S. adults said they used the internet, 81% said they owned a smartphone and 72% said they used social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Growth in adoption of some of these personal technologies has slowed in recent years simply because the pool of non-users—especially among younger generations—has steadily decreased. For example, 93% of Millennials (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) own smartphones, and nearly 100% say they use the internet.

Age of Workforce

Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) have surpassed Generation Xers (born 1965 to 1980) as the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. As of 2018, there were 57 million Millennials working or looking for work, compared to 53 million Gen Xers and only 38 million Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964).

The percentage of retirees in the U.S. population remained at about 15% until 2008. That year saw not only the start of the Great Economic Recession but also the point at which the oldest Baby Boomers, those born in 1946, turned 62 years of age and first became eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits

As Baby Boomers began retiring, the percentage of retirees in the U.S. population grew to 18.3 percent in February 2020, the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak. The percentage then increased at a much faster rate, reaching 19.3 percent in August 2021.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, total number of people who have left the workforce is around 5.25 million—including o about 3 million early retirees.

Unemployment

Following the end of the Great Recession, the U.S. unemployment rate fell from a near-record high of 9.5% in the second quarter of 2010 to a near-record low of 3.5% in the second quarter of 2019. The decade-long economic expansion ended early in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it led businesses to suspend operations or close, resulting in a record number of temporary layoffs. 

A decade-long economic expansion ended early in 2020, as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and efforts to contain it led businesses to suspend operations or close, resulting in a record number of temporary layoffs. The pandemic also prevented many people from looking for work. For the first 2 months of 2020, the economic expansion continued, reaching 128 months, or 42 quarters. This was the longest economic expansion on record before millions of jobs were lost because of the pandemic.

Driven largely by the pandemic, the total civilian workforce, as measured by the Census Bureau, fell by 21.0 million from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, while the unemployment rate more than tripled, from 3.65% to 13.0%. This was the highest quarterly average unemployment rate in history. By October 2021, however, the unemployment rate had recovered to 4.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Racial Mix

Since the 1990 census, the number of nonwhites in the United States has grown to make up the majority of the nation’s newborns, as well as the majority of K-12 students in public schools. More than half of newborn babies in the U.S. are racial or ethnic minorities, a threshold first crossed in 2013. As of fall 2018, children from racial and ethnic minority groups make up almost 53% of public K-12 students.

Religion

About 54% of Americans now say they attend church “a few times a year or less,” compared to 45% who say they attend monthly or more frequently. Since 2009, the percentage of Americans who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” has grown from 17% to 26%, while the percentage who describe themselves as Christian has declined from 77% to 65%.

Legalization of Marijuana

The percentage of U.S. adults supporting the legalization of marijuana has increased from less than 41% in 2010 to nearly 66% in 2020. While the drug remains illegal under federal law, 11 states and the District of Columbia have now legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, while many others have legalized it for medical use.

Same-Sex Marriage

While still generally opposed in 2000, same-sex marriage has gained the backing of a majority of U.S. adults. As of 2021, over 60% of Americans favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which established that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

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Longley, Robert. "How Much Has America Changed Since 1900?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2022, thoughtco.com/census-bureau-reports-100-years-in-america-4051546. Longley, Robert. (2022, January 2). How Much Has America Changed Since 1900? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/census-bureau-reports-100-years-in-america-4051546 Longley, Robert. "How Much Has America Changed Since 1900?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/census-bureau-reports-100-years-in-america-4051546 (accessed September 28, 2022).