May 18, 2006

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The Average American: The Extraordinary Search for the Nation’s Most Ordinary Citizen, by Kevin O’Keefe (Public Affairs, 2005, 257 pages)

If you were asked to define the average American, how would you respond? How would you determine what characteristics to compare, and how would you know where the average lies? Sounds like a daunting task, yet Kevin O’Keefe did just that.

A professional marketing/public relations consultant, O’Keefe was offended when a prospective client accused him of not relating to the average American. He reflected on his middle class upbringing, his education and professional life, and thought he was typical, yet when he began to research statistics about the typical American, he found that they didn’t describe him. Thus began his five-year odyssey to find the individual who most closely did match the profile.

He began by considering every person living in the country, eliminated non-citizens, and then began the search in earnest. He visited ordinary folks all over the country, sought out what they felt was important, and returned to the census and other credible statistics to compare how the Average Joe would fit in. The only criteria he used were those raised by people he met along the way. These ranged from geographic (sees a trace of snowfall annually, has seen the ocean, lives where the average temperature is between 45 and 65 degrees) to the physical (18-53 years old, 135-205 pounds, use of all five senses). There were material elements (owns at least one pair of blue jeans, has a stereo, has a craft or hobby), financial guidelines (income, value of home, donates to charity) and those that dealt more with political and spiritual beliefs.

In the end, O’Keefe accumulated a list of 140 criteria to determine the nation’s most statistically average person. He comes to grips with his own fear of being average (i.e. he realizes that “average” doesn’t have to mean “dull”). He is amazed at where his journey ends, and the person who matches the profile as the average American.

As you accompany him on his journey, you will inevitably find yourself comparing how you match up to the statistics. Of course, all New Hampshire residents were eliminated due to our absence of sales tax, but I was surprised by some of the other criteria I didn’t match. Who would have expected me to be eliminated from the running because I’ve never fired a gun and live more than three miles from the nearest McDonalds?

Although a bit slow reading at times, the book is more than just lists and statistics. It’s a slice of everyday America, and it will make you pause and take stock of your life. B+

— Irene Labombarde


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