Americans Are Shrinking, and It Started With Millennials

Once the tallest in the world, American men have shrunk to 47th, women 58th
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 3, 2024 8:30 AM CST
Americans Are Shrinking, and It Started With Millennials
Once the tallest in the world, Americans have sunk in height rank.   (Getty / Vyacheslav Dumchev)

Back in the 1800s, records showed that Americans were the tallest in the world. But something happened in the 1980s stateside—men and women's average height was shrinking when compared with other countries. Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with researchers on WBUR's On Point to dig into why, and they say it's largely due to factors involving the social safety net. Countries like the Netherlands that have free health care, child nutrition programs, and strong maternity resources rank higher in height, demonstrating that when people's basic wellness needs are being met, they thrive. "Height is an overlooked indicator," says John Komlos, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Munich. "It has effects that are important from the point of view of human welfare."

His research went deep into history to study height over time. This involved trawling through sources like slave trade accounting and military records so old that no one had turned the handwritten, dusty pages in hundreds of years. The data and archaeological records showed that Americans were tallest in the 1800s, when food was plentiful and accessible stateside, especially when compared with other regions (though the data available is really tracking white Americans). Over time, other countries began to catch up, but a real shift occurred in the 1980s, the era of the first millennials and of Reaganomics, when Americans began falling behind Western countries in height and also life expectancy, while child obesity, which can stunt growth spurts, was on the rise.

"It's the beginning of an incredible rise in inequality, a new ideology in the administration that puts more emphasis on individual agency and less on public service," Komlos says of Reaganomics. "And as a consequence, the American health care system becomes the most inefficient in the world." Per the Washington Post, differences sped up quickly during this era. In 1985, 19-year-old men ranked 36th in height and women 38th globally, but by 2019, men fell to 47th and women to 58th (behind China and Lebanon). Inequality in the US, however, was on the rise, and Komlos says we lose more height due to poverty than we gain from extreme wealth. (These are America's tallest cities.)

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