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Has Progress in America Peaked? Has Progress in America Peaked?
Measuring Physical, Personal, and National Development over the past century I recently came across a compelling work of data visualization published by the New York... Has Progress in America Peaked?

Measuring Physical, Personal, and National Development over the past century

I recently came across a compelling work of data visualization published by the New York Times. The author sought to prove a point that performance had peaked in men’s speed skating and more broadly in other Olympic sports too.

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This got me thinking… is the finding true only in purely physical metrics or does it ring true in other areas too? Where are we approaching the limit of progress and where do we still have room to grow?

A difficult question is how to measure progress—What are the right metrics? What do we (or should we) value as a society enough to deem growth in that metric to be progress? Quarterly, GDP is seen as a measure of growth in the US, but should we only be measuring ourselves in financial terms?

The metrics also needed to have ample historical data and be measured on a consistent scale (e.g., inflation-adjusted for wealth or per population for national statistics). After much back and forth, the three aggregated measures of progress and their relevant data points are:

National Development

  • Productivity (Real Output per Hour)
  • Wealth (GDP per Capita in 2010 $)
  • Well-Being (Human Development Index)
  • Health (Age-Adjusted Mortality per 100,000 Population);

Personal Development

  • Intelligence (Avg. Years of Schooling Completed)
  • Wealth (Median Household Income in 2018 CPI Adjusted $)
  • Well-Being (Self-Reported Happiness)
  • Health (Life Expectancy);

Physical Development

  • Strength (Olympic Shot-put)
  • Speed (Olympic 100-meter dash)
  • Endurance (Boston Marathon Winning Mile Time)
  • Explosiveness (Olympic Long-Jump)

Other than the Physical Development, the metrics are only US-focused and we’ll make the assumption that the trends in Physical Development in the Olympics—where the US competes—is representative of the US.

Tableau Dashboard

The data shows that 7 out of the 12 (~60%) metrics have peaked (as measured by historical positive momentum that has significantly slowed or stopped). Interestingly, the metrics that have peaked are predominantly personal. Of the 7 plateaued metrics, 6 are in Personal or Physical Development while only 1 is a National statistic. Check out the data for yourself in this Tableau Dashboard and let me know what you think.


Physical Development

Source for Olympic DataBoston Marathon

Physical Development is intended to measure whether we see continued increases in strength and speed among top-tier athletes. Are we stronger and faster than before? Do we have better endurance and explosiveness?

The 100-meter dash winner was <1% faster in 2016 than 1968. Between 1920 and 1968—the same length of time—there was an 8% improvement.

Most physical metrics reached their peak between 1970–1980, as shown by the light blue bar in the above graph. While the 100-Meter Dash had two record performances in 2008 and 2012, the winner in 2016 was only 0.09 seconds, or 1%, faster than the winner in 1968. For comparison, the winner in 1968 was ~8% faster than the winner in 1920, a similar 48-year time span.

The Long-Jump gold medal winner in 1980 reached a distance of 8.54 meters; the Gold medal winning distance in 2016 was 8.38 meters, a decrease of ~2%. In the Boston Marathon, once the 5-minute mile was eclipsed, little additional progress has been made since 1980. Strength, as measured by the Shot Put, remains the only area that has continued to progress after a brief slump from 1980–2004.


Personal Development

Source for EducationMedian HH IncomeSelf Reported HappinessLife Expectancy

Personal Development measures whether the individual people within the country are progressing. Is access to—and completion of—education increasing? Are people earning more? Are they happier and living longer lives?

The rate of growth for education completed dropped by more than 50% from 2008–2017 compared to 1999–2008.

There’s an interesting inflection point for a few metrics right around the time of the Great Recession. Health—as measured by life expectancy—steadily grew from 1950–2008, but has been stubbornly stuck at just shy of 79 years old since then.

Likewise, years of schooling completed, after reaching ~13 years in 2008, has increased by only 0.2 years since then; in the prior decade, it increased by 0.5 years.

Self-reported happiness, as measured by a GSS Survey where the respondent reported being “Pretty Happy” or “Very Happy”, increased from 83% in 1972 to 92% in 1990; it has not returned to that level since and in 2018 was 87%.

Household income has experienced a bumpy yet steady upward trajectory. The figure drops through recessions but has consistently reached higher peaks.


National Development

Source for Real Output per HourGDP per CapitaHuman Development IndexAge-Adjusted Mortality

National Development is a way to measure whether the country in the aggregate is progressing. Are people producing more goods? Is the country increasing its wealth and improving public health? Is the population experiencing an improving standard of living?

It’s the one category where the US has continued to progress with little slowdown experienced since 1950. Real Output per Hour, GDP per Capita, and the Human Development Index (an index that seeks to measure human development through health, education, and standard of living) have all seen steady and consistent upward progress.

The only measure that has flattened is the age-adjusted mortality, which signals that we may be reaching the upper bound of what current medicine can do to promote longer and healthier lives.

While personal measures of progress have stalled, the nation as a whole remains resilient and growing.


We’ve investigated whether—and where—the US is peaking, but an unanswered question remains. A lack of growth is oftentimes viewed as a negative—is it? If a human can 100 meters in 9.5 instead of 9.81 seconds, does this push humanity forward?

In the aggregate, Americans are healthier, wealthier, living longer, and have a better standard of living than ever before. The data undeniably shows this as a fact, even if the progress has been incremental over the past decades.

The areas that have peaked or are reaching that level are boundaries that don’t hold us back as a society. 13+ years of education, on average, is a remarkable accomplishment and represents 5 additional years of education since 1950. We shouldn’t be forcing everyone into degree programs; this shows that we’re now graduating the average citizen from High School and letting them choose their next path.

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So, has America peaked? As with most data, the answer is yes and no. Personal measures of progress have largely reached a plateau, but that plateau comes at a place where the majority of Americans are educated, healthy, and financially stable.

I’d love to hear your feedback on the right metrics for judging progress and your interpretation of the data in the Dashboard.

Originally Posted Here

Jordan Bean

Jordan Bean

Jordan is an analytics professional with an interest in data storytelling, visualization, and simplifying complex topics into interpretable messages. He's currently pursuing a Masters degree in Business Analytics at Wake Forest University while working in analytics for Liberty Mutual Insurance. Prior to that, he worked in consulting for Private Equity firms on strategy and buyouts. Feel free to connect at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordanbean/ to talk through any thoughts on articles or breaking into the data field.

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