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Living on the Edge

An American Generation’s Journey through the Twentieth Century

Living on the Edge

An American Generation’s Journey through the Twentieth Century

History carves its imprint on human lives for generations after. When we think of the radical changes that transformed America during the twentieth century, our minds most often snap to the fifties and sixties: the Civil Rights Movement, changing gender roles, and new economic opportunities all point to a decisive turning point. But these were not the only changes that shaped our world, and in Living on the Edge, we learn that rapid social change and uncertainty also defined the lives of Americans born at the turn of the twentieth century. The changes they cultivated and witnessed affect our world as we understand it today.
Drawing from the iconic longitudinal Berkeley Guidance Study, Living on the Edge reveals the hopes, struggles, and daily lives of the 1900 generation. Most surprising is how relevant and relatable the lives and experiences of this generation are today, despite the gap of a century. From the reorganization of marriage and family roles and relationships to strategies for adapting to a dramatically changing economy, the challenges faced by this earlier generation echo our own time. Living on the Edge offers an intimate glimpse into not just the history of our country, but the feelings, dreams, and fears of a generation remarkably kindred to the present day.

392 pages | 5 halftones, 4 line drawings, 14 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: American History

Sociology: Demography and Human Ecology, Social History, Sociology--Marriage and Family


Living on the Edge is a must read for all interested in the promises and perils of social change and how individuals adapt to rapid successions of boom and bust, entering an uncharted world.”

Ingrid Schoon, University College London

Living on the Edge presents a singularly creative example of the power of the life- course perspective to provide a unique and compelling account of how the lives of Americans in the 1900 generation were shaped by the rapidly changing world through World War I-II and the Great Depression. In what is certain to be regarded as a classic, the study exemplifies how master scientists can illuminate the ways in which individual and context shape lives within each moment and across the life span.”

Richard M. Lerner, Tufts University

“By looking to past generations, Living on the Edge offers remarkable insights into how disruptive social changes transform life course paths and possibilities in myriad unanticipated ways. A must read for all of us living on the edge in these tumultuous times.”

Phyllis Moen, University of Minnesota

“A pleasure to read, well-organized, beautifully written, and, most important, fascinating, this book teaches us about the rarely studied 1900 generation. This is the generation that made initial forays into major societal changes that emerged full-blown in the 1960s and 1970s, especially with respect to marriage and women’s rights and lifestyles. This book makes a unique and excellent contribution to literature.”

Linda K. George, Duke University

“This is a remarkable culmination of a research project extending over a half-century, capturing nearly the entire lives of the Berkeley '1900' generation. Guided by bedrock principles of life course analysis, it shows how each phase of life must be understood in the context of the entire life course and its historical setting.”

Jeylan T. Mortimer, University of Minnesota

A rewarding account that supports the adage that what’s past is prologue.

Kirkus Reviews

"Three scholars assess the historic, social, and cultural implications for those who were part of the Berkeley Guidance Study initiated by Jean Walker Macfarlane in the late 1920s. Settersten, Elder, and Pearce analyze those participants’ responses to determine how they coped with challenges, often traumatic and devastating, through the World Wars, the Great Depression, the Korean War era, the conflicts of marriage, changing notions of women’s work and women's role in the marketplace, child rearing and the challenges associated with it, and the attitudes expressed about social status (or the lack of it) in the Bay area over time. Members of this generation, which lived during the era from 1900 to approximately 1970, had to adapt to rapid changes in their lives, as documented in the study. . . . Recommended."



"Analyzes how rapid socioeconomic changes influenced the lives of middle- and working-class Americans of the 1900 generation, investigating how they adapted to the disruptive and ever-changing world using data from the near-century-long Berkeley Guidance Study launched at the Berkeley Institute of Child Welfare in the late 1920s."

Journal of Economic Literature

"The book is highly recommended and may be of particular interest to sociologists, psychologists, gerontologists and social historians. There is much to be gained by the lay reader both from an American audience or beyond, perhaps having particular relevance to Westernised developed countries that experienced modernity and industrialisation in the 20th century. It is an exciting read and gives a real sense of connection with the lives of those who have gone before. It is also highly relevant in understanding the differential impact of national or global disasters on differentmembers of a society and the potential for lifelong consequences."

Ageing & Society

"Viewing twentieth-century American history through the life cycle of four generations of Americans is a fascinating way to view change overtime. Living on the Edge gives us an opportunity to view individual reactions to momentous historical shifts in the twentieth century. . . With these demographic limitations in mind, Living on the Edge provides a fascinating and detailed look into the lives of these Americans and how they navigated cultural and world events."


"Living on the Edge provides a rich, thought-provoking, and surprising portrait of a birth cohort 'on the edge of history.' Yet, more than a descriptive study, this beautifully written social history and analysis vividly reveals how early life experiences, historical contexts, and personal agency intertwine to shape human lives... An instant classic, and joins its companion studies American Lives and Children of the Great Depression as our field’s most influential studies of aging and the life course."


"This multigenerational study builds on a lifetime of monumental research and, as such, it is a one-of-a-kind contribution to the social sciences... This research will provide inspiration to future scholars who attempt to understand the lasting implications of social change for human lives."

Longitudinal and Life Course Studies

"Living on the Edge could find a home in a variety of classes. Its finding would prove remarkably useful in courses focused on, for example, the analysis of gender, comparative life course methods, and generational kinship economies. . . Living on the Edge’s incredibly rich (and longue durée) compilation of longitudinal research, which draws from the well-known Berkeley Guidance Study, spans almost the exact time frame of a modern US survey course, which typically takes1865 (Reconstruction) as its starting point and continues to the present day."

Social Science History

"Living on the Edge is a wonderful blend of sociology and history – a longitudinal study that shows us how white Americans experienced historical time and place: how two World Wars and the Great Depression deeply influenced their lives in California. There is much here that could guide a future longitudinal study of white and ethnic minority families in America as we traverse the 21st century."

Social Science History

"Living on the Edge models good mixed methods research. Mixed methods are particularly important for addressing an inherent tension in life-course research. . . This blended evidence makes Living on the Edge a significant contribution to life-course research."

Social Science History

"Richard Settersten Jr., Glen Elder Jr., and Lisa Pearce’s book Living on the Edge: An American Generation’s Journey Through the 20th Century is a comprehensive study with origins dating to the 1960s. . . An extremely engaging read, their work makes a wonderful contribution to family history, migration history, and longitudinal studies."

Social Science History

Table of Contents

Part 1 Entering an Uncharted World

1 Americans in a New Century: The 1900 Generation

Part 2 Making a Life: 1910–30

2 California, Here We Come!
3 Men on Their Way
4 Becoming Women
5 Together and Apart in Marriage

Part 3 The Depression Years: The Worst and Best of Times

6 Misfortune and Privilege
7 Hard Times Turned Bad
8 Having Children in Troubled Times
9 In the Midst of Kin

Part 4 War on the Home Front

10 War’s Impact at Home
11 Women at Work
12 From Generation to Generation

Part 5 Transforming Times and Lives

13 The Past in Later Life

Appendix A: Additional Tables and Figures
Appendix B: The Sample, Data Sources, and Methods
Appendix C: The Story of the Project, 1962–2019


The Gerontological Society of America: Richard Kalish Innovative Publication Award

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