To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.
The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”
So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?
“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.
A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.
Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.
So basically, we work ourselves to death, we don't eat right and we don't exercise enough -- and the latter two are directly or indirectly related to the first cause. The average American gets one or two weeks of paid vacation, if any. Almost all of the jobs I have worked at had no vacation time at all. If you wanted some time off, you had to take it without pay.
Another problem is that too many Americans fail to realize that that big house, fancy car and credit card debt for consumer purchases (not to mention the health care and college tuition costs) are costing us quality of life. We are so busy chasing the almighty dollar that we fail to see the simple beauty and enjoyment right around us.
Part of it is also that Americans have so far failed to appreciate just how underpaid they are. When they do get paid a decent wage, they spend it on frivolous bric-a-brac that adds very little to their overall happiness.
Life needs to be enjoyed. Go out and see a park. Take the kids to the zoo. Walk along the beach. You would be amazed at how much zest you can squeeze out of life for not much money. All you need is time. It is the sort of thing very few Americans enjoy because we don't demand it enough from our employers (or our elected officials).
If we could do more of these things, we could stand tall -- no matter what our stature.