Episode 936: The Modal American : Planet Money Kenny takes Jacob on a nerdy quest to find the "typical American." Naturally, it ends up harder⁠—and nerdier⁠—than we planned, and the answer is more subtle than we expected. | Subscribe to our newsletter here.
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Episode 936: The Modal American

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Episode 936: The Modal American

Episode 936: The Modal American

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER (BYLINE): This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

KENNY MALONE (HOST): Jacob, do you remember - I think it was, like, few months ago...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN (HOST): Go on.

MALONE: ...Where I came over to your desk, and I had this pet peeve about statistics?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

MALONE: My issue is with this thing that people talk about, the average American. And, like, yeah, there's something sort of silly about the average American 'cause it's like a melting pot. Who is average, really? But my quibble is more pedantic than that because I think people don't mean average American. I think what they actually mean is, who is the person - if I walk outside into America, who is the person I'm most likely to run into?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes, the person who there's more of that person than any other person.

MALONE: That ain't the average. It's not the median.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It's also not the median, smart guy. It is the mode. Mode is the most underrated of - what are those things called, like...

MALONE: Statistics.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: ...Mode, median, average?

MALONE: Statistics.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: No.

MALONE: They're statistics.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: There's a better word for each of those things, but I don't know what it is.

MALONE: All right. Well, the mode is, I think, the most underrated.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Definitely.

MALONE: Mode, if you have forgotten your intro-level stats class, is the most common thing in a data set. So if you have, like, a bag of M&Ms, whichever color there is the most of, that's your modal M&M.

And when people talk about the average American, what they actually mean is, like, modal American. And I've never actually seen anybody run that statistic. And just to be sure, I called the U.S. Census Bureau, and they were...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Blow the lid off of this.

MALONE: Yeah. And they were like, I don't think anyone is doing that.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: I looked all over the place, and I could not find anyone who had truly run this statistic. And it boggles my mind that in this day and age, there is any stat that isn't just, like, available at our fingertips. So my next call...

BEN CASSELMAN (ECONOMICS WRITER, THE NEW YORK TIMES): Yes, hello.

MALONE: Hey, it's Kenny Malone.

...Was to Ben Casselman.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Love.

MALONE: You know Ben Casselman.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes. We worked together at The Wall Street Journal a long time ago, covers economics for The New York Times now, knows R, the, like, statistics programming language. He really gets it.

MALONE: He makes animated gifs of jobs numbers.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh.

MALONE: Yeah. So I called Ben, and Ben was like...

CASSELMAN: I've actually thought a lot about this...

(LAUGHTER)

ACOB GOLDSTEIN: I told you I love Ben.

CASSELMAN: ...Which perhaps makes me a nonmodal American.

MALONE: Perhaps.

Ben said this came up just the other day for him. He saw this, like, tweet going around.

CASSELMAN: It was, like, how the typical American - like, where their income comes from and what they spend it on.

MALONE: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: But it was like - they had - I don't know - $60,000 in labor income and $10,000 in Social Security income. I'm like, well, OK. Now hold on a second.

MALONE: And he was like, no, they don't. That's not a person.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: There is no American - well, there is maybe some American.

MALONE: Some.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: But that's, like, a weird, freakish American. That is not typical.

MALONE: Yes. You are probably working or you're collecting Social Security and almost certainly not both.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It's basically if you took all the Americans and put them in a blender, that's what you would get. But that's not any...

MALONE: It doesn't make any sense. And so his point was, like, yes, no, average is nonsense. You're going to end up with these nonsense blender people that you may not even find in the real world. If you actually want to figure out what human beings exist outside your door, you need to run the mode.

CASSELMAN: Like, there's some person where there are more people who look like that person than look like any other type of person.

MALONE: Yeah. That if I went out and just knocked on doors, eventually, I would run into this very person.

CASSELMAN: Yeah. Who's that person?

MALONE: And so I was like, Ben, do you think maybe you could help me find the modal American?

CASSELMAN: Yeah. I think this could be really fun. And it is actually something I have thought about but have never...

MALONE: Had a reason to do it.

CASSELMAN: ...Had a reason to do it. That's right.

MALONE: Here's your invitation to the ball, Cinderella.

CASSELMAN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN ROWCROFT'S "PYRAMID THOUGHTS")

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein.

MALONE: Ben Casselman and I set out to try and find the modal American. And I am telling Jacob about it for the very first time today. He has no idea.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Today, I am ready to be genuinely surprised.

MALONE: We have a cavalcade of guests.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Wow.

MALONE: And today, Jacob, prepare yourself for a very nerdy show about trying to use a relatively simple statistic to answer a really complicated question.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Great. There's been so much secrecy.

MALONE: I know. You don't know anything.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I don't know anything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR DINGING)

MALONE: Ben.

CASSELMAN: Hey. You want to just come over to my desk? We'll show you where the data magic happens.

MALONE: OK.

The first thing we did here is I met with Ben. We made an appointment to meet at The New York Times, where Ben works. He's like, I have not stopped thinking about this since we had our phone call.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Love that guy.

MALONE: I like that there's code up on your screen.

CASSELMAN: There's literally code...

MALONE: Did you do that intentionally?

CASSELMAN: No. Well, I mean, like...

MALONE: I feel like this is a flex.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) It's funny when you look at code. It's like, it's just code.

MALONE: Yeah, it's just code.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Like, a normal person is like, it's "The Matrix." Like, no, you can learn.

CASSELMAN: Well, let me show you just a couple of things just as I was starting to noodle around.

MALONE: Yeah.

And he just starts, like, ripping away on the keyboard. Da-da-da-da-da (ph). And up pops this graph.

CASSELMAN: So this is the actual age distribution of the country.

MALONE: It's shaped like - roughly like the McDonald's arch.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Arches - two.

MALONE: Yes.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: Arches, thank you.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: And you can see super clearly there's this bump of the boomers. Gen X is this sort of small generation.

MALONE: The valley in between.

CASSELMAN: The valley in between, yeah.

MALONE: So you've got this one really big generation, the boomers. You've got this really small generation, Gen X. And then you've got this other big generation, this other hump.

CASSELMAN: Millennials.

MALONE: The millennials.

CASSELMAN: Yeah.

MALONE: Did you know that there's another name for millennials?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: No.

CASSELMAN: Before they were widely called the millennials, they were called often by demographers the echo boomers...

MALONE: Oh, that's a good - that's better.

CASSELMAN: ...Which I like better.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: That's nice. They're just the baby boomers' kids.

MALONE: It's better, right? It's not loaded.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes, it hasn't become loaded. It would've been loaded if that's what all the dumb stories...

MALONE: Sure, but it's not. It's not now.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Fair, yeah.

MALONE: Right?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

MALONE: Ben's point with this...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes, yes.

MALONE: ...Distribution was, like - he's like, here's another way the traditional statistics fail us, because if you ask this distribution...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Ah, I love it.

MALONE: ...What's the median age of the country right now...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: The median age - this is the age at which there are the same number of people younger as older.

MALONE: ...The answer is, like, the middle valley.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It's Gen X.

MALONE: Gen X.

CASSELMAN: There - actually, I am the median American in terms of age. It's 38.

MALONE: Thirty-eight years old. But, of course, if you look on that screen, that is, in fact, one of the least common ages in the country.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Ah, right. So there aren't - so the typical American is not 38 years old.

MALONE: No.

CASSELMAN: If we want the typical, we want the modal age is just the age that the most people actually are. So it's literally just, like, which bar on this chart is the highest?

MALONE: And it turns out that 26 is, in fact, the modal age.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Really?

MALONE: Yeah, 26.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So there's no boomer age that is more common than 26.

MALONE: Right. Close, but not...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So the typical American is 26 years old.

MALONE: Yes, if you look only at age - only at age, yes.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes, yes.

MALONE: But our mission was to find the modal American based on, like, a bunch of traits, not just age, so...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Sure. I mean, I would think some about income or wealth.

MALONE: OK, so do we have our list?

CASSELMAN: I think we have our list.

MALONE: We figured that this would be some combination of things that, like, are really about who is this modal person within the American economy?

CASSELMAN: Sure.

MALONE: Do you want to read it back?

CASSELMAN: All right - age, income, occupation, in some form...

MALONE: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: ...Education...

MALONE: And we're going to get this information from something the U.S. Census Bureau collects called the American Community Survey.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: ...Geography, metro status, something, something...

MALONE: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: ...Marital status.

MALONE: Yes.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK, that's a lot. This is, like, tricky. It's not obvious to me how this is going to work.

MALONE: Yeah, this is why you bring in Ben Casselman.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK, I love that guy.

CASSELMAN: All right.

MALONE: How do you feel about it?

CASSELMAN: I think we can do this.

MALONE: Let's do it. High-five?

CASSELMAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGH-FIVE)

MALONE: We miss a high-five once.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Nerd power.

MALONE: But then Ben's like, OK, this is going to take a while, and now we have to wait for an answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARC FERRARI, ET AL. SONG, "BOSSA DE IPANEMA")

MALONE: All right, so that meeting - that was about four months ago. And, Jacob...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

MALONE: ...Please welcome into the studio...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: No.

MALONE: ...Ben Casselman.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh, with the laptop open.

MALONE: With the laptop open and...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: With the spreadsheet up. Forgive me, not the spreadsheet. Like...

CASSELMAN: Please, like I was using a spreadsheet.

MALONE: Good. Put on your headphones.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So you guys first - so you guys first emailed about this in April.

MALONE: Yes.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: We're all busy, but it is August now.

CASSELMAN: I have done literally nothing else. My bosses are not pleased.

MALONE: What were some of the things that made it hard?

CASSELMAN: So I think we had this idea that we could identify a super specific person.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: Right, it was going to be a 23-year-old hairdresser in Dayton, Ohio.

MALONE: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: The trouble with that, as we pretty quickly realized, the more finely we slice this, the fewer people there are in each one of these buckets. And if there are only 50 people in our final group, that's just not a very typical experience. That doesn't mean that much.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

MALONE: Yeah, we figured, like, there should be - I don't know - like, a couple million modal Americans...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: ...So this was a pretty common experience. And so we had to, like, rethink how specific we could be with each of our categories.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: For college, for example, we just had to keep it simple. You either have a bachelor's degree, or you don't have a bachelor's degree.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So everybody in America is in one of two educational chunks.

CASSELMAN: That's right.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: And we had to do this for all of our categories. Like, instead of a specific city, everybody is either urban, suburban or rural. Instead of a specific age, it's generation.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So basically, you want to - in each one, you want to take everybody in America and put them into, like, a few big chunks.

CASSELMAN: That's right. You're a Generation X urban white male.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I am. It's true.

CASSELMAN: You went to college.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I did.

MALONE: You're married. You work full-time. This is the level of detail that we had to go with so that our modal American would be a big enough group of people.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: Here's the other big thing you need to know. It is not that hard to find, like, the mode for each of these categories...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Right.

MALONE: ...Just like we did with age.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

MALONE: And it's, like, interesting to know. So the modal gender - and there are only two choices here, based on the form we're pulling from.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: The modal gender is female in this country.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK, I think I would've guessed that one. I think I knew there's more women than men.

MALONE: The modal race is white.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: The modal household income is about $30,000 to $75,000. Call that, like, middle income.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. Sure, very reasonable.

MALONE: And so those are of many different modal Americans, based on...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: The modal American.

MALONE: The modal American based on one trait each.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

MALONE: One trait.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, yeah.

MALONE: But if you want to find the modal American based on all of these traits combined, you cannot just take, like, each of those answers and stack them on top of each other. You can't just say, female, white, suburban, middle-income. Like...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So OK. So I thought it was you take the most common of each of the things. But you're saying it's not that.

MALONE: Yeah. It's a particularly tricky idea. But if you do that, it will not necessarily work.

CASSELMAN: I can give a real example if we want one.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Try it.

CASSELMAN: All right. The most common single age is 26-years-old.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: The most common single marital status...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

CASSELMAN: ...is married.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: Except most 26-year-olds are not married.

MALONE: There are a lot of 26-year-olds, so they are typical. And there are a lot of married people, they're typical. But married 26-year-olds are not typical.

CASSELMAN: You're probably not going to bump into a married 26-year-old on the street. Or at least you're less likely to bump into that person than a lot of other people.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Than an unmarried 26-year-old.

CASSELMAN: Exactly.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. That's actually - that's a weird problem.

MALONE: Yeah. It just means that we have to do something a lot more complicated. Our methodology here is that we have to take all of these eight variables...

CASSELMAN: Like, household income, and generation, and are you working or not, all of that.

MALONE: ...Education level. Yeah, all of those things. And we basically need to make, like, a bucket for every single combination of those variables.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Uh-Huh

MALONE: So we're going to have one bucket that is a woman living in the country who is a baby boomer and is a person of color, who is married, who has a college degree, who is in a high-income household. And that is one bucket.

CASSELMAN: And every person in America who fits all of those criteria will go in that bucket.

MALONE: Yes. And then right next to it is a bucket with all of the exact same attributes but not married in this one.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Uh-Huh

MALONE: And it's every single combination. This will...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Uh-Huh. You just keep turning the dial and turning the dial and turning the dial.

MALONE: We're going to end up having over 3000 buckets that we have to sort the country into.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Uh-Huh.

CASSELMAN: And the modal American is in the - one of those 3000 buckets that has the most people in it.

MALONE: That is correct.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. OK. I get it.

MALONE: OK. So keeping all of that in mind, Ben is here with his laptop because we are done. We've done it.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: I have an answer.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Tell me.

MALONE: Not only are we going to tell you, we are not going to tell you. We have...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

MALONE: Not only are we going to not, not, not tell you, we have another special guest.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: What?

MALONE: The modal American..

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: What?

MALONE: ...Is on the phone.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: No.

MALONE: Modal American, do you want to go ahead and just say hi to Jacob.

OLIVIA GOLDSTEIN (DAUGHTER OF JACOB GOLDSTEIN): Hi, Jacob.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter) Wait. Is this the modal American?

MALONE: This is it. Modal American, we're just going to ask you three questions here.

CASSELMAN: Hi, modal American. This is Ben. All right. Are you married?

OLIVIA: No, not married.

MALONE: Do you have a four-year college degree?

OLIVIA: No college degree.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

CASSELMAN: (Laughter).

MALONE: What was the last job you did?

OLIVIA: I cleaned my room.

CASSELMAN: (Laughter).

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

MALONE: Jacob, have you figured out who our modal American...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I have a guess. Is it really?

MALONE: Do you want to guess?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: How are you sweetheart?

OLIVIA: Yes, that is me.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Hi, honey.

OLIVIA: OK. Here's my normal voice. Here's Julia.

JULIA GOLDSTEIN (DAUGHTER OF JACOB GOLDSTEIN): Hi, Dada.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh, hi, honey. Are you also the modal American?

JULIA: Yeah.

MALONE: The modal American, based on our criteria, is in fact, a child.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

JULIA: Two childs.

MALONE: Two childs...

CASSELMAN: Two childs technically.

MALONE: ...Two childs from the Generation Z, as they're called.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Really?

CASSELMAN: Yeah, I mean, so all of these categories that we chose are sort of predicated on being an adult.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Right.

CASSELMAN: And so all of the kids end up bucket into one big category.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Right.

MALONE: Because they all answer the same - I've never been married. I don't have a job...

CASSELMAN: Right. We split all the adults up in a bunch of ways.

MALONE: ...Because I'm seven years old. I haven't been to college. Sue me.

CASSELMAN: We split all the adults up into these little categories. The kids all end up in one.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Right. It's an artifact.

CASSELMAN: That's...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It's a silly answer. But essentially, what you really want is to get rid of kids and just say, OK, who's the modal adult?

MALONE: Yes.

CASSELMAN: That's exactly right.

MALONE: Who is this, Julia or Olivia?

OLIVIA: This is Olivia, the younger one so it might be a little hard to understand me.

MALONE: No, you sound great. I hope you're not offended, but we are going to throw you two out of our analysis.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh.

MALONE: And all of the kids because it's not really the answer we were after.

OLIVIA: That's OK.

MALONE: You sure?

OLIVIA: Yeah.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: You took that very well, sweetie.

MALONE: Yeah.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Thanks, honey.

MALONE: Thanks.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Bye.

OLIVIA: Bye.

MALONE: That was a fake out.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. It was a charming fake out.

MALONE: But we have a real answer for you...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: ...After the break.

And we're back. Are you excited? We have an answer for you.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: You told me that once before.

MALONE: I know. It was a fake out. But it was...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Fool me once...

MALONE: ...It was your kids. What are you complaining about?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Fair. Fair.

MALONE: And it was the real answer. It just - we had to - there was a caveat.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: No, that's fair. OK. Well, is there going to be a caveat this time?

MALONE: Zero caveats.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Is there a person?

MALONE: Yes. But do you want know second place first?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I mean, I - sure - dramatic structure.

MALONE: (Laughter).

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. So there's the second most common America - the modal American first runner-up.

CASSELMAN: They're about 2 million people, just under.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Two million people who fit all of the characteristics...

CASSELMAN: Who are in this second place bucket.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: The second most common American is - she's a woman. She's a baby boomer.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: She does not work - at least not full-time.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. Baby boomers are retiring.

CASSELMAN: Could be retired or could be partially retired. She is in a household that earns in that 30,000 to 75,000 bucket.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Middle class.

CASSELMAN: Right. People tend to earn less in retirement.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: So that is not bad in a retirement era.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: Did not complete a bachelor's degree.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, it's striking. It's still, like, a minority of Americans, in general, that have graduated from college.

CASSELMAN: Yeah, only about a third of Americans have graduated from college.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: She is married...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: ...Is white, lives in the suburbs.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: That is pretty - that is unsurprising.

CASSELMAN: And, in fact, I think if you'd asked us beforehand, we might well have thought that would be our modal American, right?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

CASSELMAN: The most common sex in this country is female. The most common age group is baby boomers. So - but, Jacob, remember the point from before about the married 26-year-old?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: So the most common characteristics don't always intersect to equal the most common actual person out in the street.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, right.

MALONE: Which brings us, Jacob, to our modal American.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: We have run the numbers, and not only have we found the modal American...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Not hard to find, I guess.

MALONE: By definition.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

MALONE: Well played, sir. And, Jacob, we are going to reveal the details of the modal American to you with a prerecorded phone call.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE) MALONE: What you are hearing right now...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

MALONE: ...Is from a few weeks ago. Our producer Liza called up our modal American and recorded this conversation.

LIZA YEAGER (BYLINE): Would you mind just introducing yourself?

DAN SAMEDI (CAR DEALERSHIP EMPLOYEE): Sure. My name is Dan Samedi (ph).

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh, dude. I would not have guessed men.

SAMEDI: I live in Swampscott, Mass., and I worked in car dealerships since 1992.

YEAGER: OK. Well, turns out that people with your exact qualities are the most common type of American.

SAMEDI: Really?

YEAGER: Yeah, really. Does that surprise you?

SAMEDI: I guess. I - like, if I stop and think about it, it shouldn't. But I guess it kind of does. Like, I guess...

CASSELMAN: So just a small note about our modal American here. There are about 2 million of them, which is a lot or not that many, depending on how you want to think about it - right? - because there are 320-plus million Americans, so this is less than 1% of the population.

YEAGER: So we have some questions to ask you.

SAMEDI: OK. So hit me.

YEAGER: So our first question...

MALONE: And, Jacob, I think this question Liza asks him is going to give away his age.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: What's your favorite Fleetwood Mac song?

MALONE: It is that kind of question.

YEAGER: OK. Do you own a plaid shirt?

SAMEDI: Oh, sure. Of course I do.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Gen X.

MALONE: It's Gen X.

SAMEDI: And then, like, in the late '90s, I think I switched over to being, like, a Structure guy. You don't remember that, do you?

YEAGER: No. What is that?

SAMEDI: It was, like, a clothing store for guys in their early 20s that wanted to, like - I don't know - look like they were on "Friends," I guess.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Structure is super Gen X.

MALONE: It's actually more Gen X than Gen X.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

YEAGER: You too, Dan. OK. Talk soon. Bye.

MALONE: But, yeah, a Gen X dude.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I truly would not have guessed that.

MALONE: Yeah.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I would have guessed echo boomer or boomer.

CASSELMAN: We were surprised, too, right? Gen X is this small generation.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: But when you stop and think about it, it actually makes some sense. Boomers and echo boomers are much larger generations than Gen X.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: But the Gen Xers are in this weirdly homogenous moment right now when most of them are in the prime of their working years, whereas the boomers and the echo boomers are split...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: ...Right? The boomers are - some of them are working, some of them are retired, some of them are partly retired. And the same on the echo boomers - right? - some of them are fully into the workforce, but some of them are still in college or they're working their way in.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: And so they're split.

MALONE: Yeah. And, Jacob, it's, like, worth noting, also, we were surprised that it was a man and not a woman because...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

MALONE: ...As we talked about earlier, there are more women in this country than men.

CASSELMAN: But it's a split-experience situation again. Men are still more likely to be working full-time, where women are more likely to have a mix of different experiences. Some of them are working full-time, some are working part-time, some are staying home.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So the work-not work really drives this result.

CASSELMAN: Work is a really big divider here.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: By the way, what is the age range of Gen X?

MALONE: It's 39 to 54.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK, so you could do...

CASSELMAN: So it's your late 30s into your early 50s.

MALONE: Yeah. And, Jacob, let us give you, like, the rest of the attributes of our modal American here.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: Yeah. So our modal American lives in the suburbs...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: ...Did not complete a bachelor's degree, is white, is married, is working full-time and earns sort of an upper-middle-class income. The household income is between $75,000 and $165,000 a year.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So it is - I mean, it is - I definitely would not have guessed that the combination of no college degree and upper-middle class. Like, I don't - that's surprising to me.

MALONE: Yeah, so I think it is surprising at first glance. But if you think about it, this is a household income.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh, and they're married, I guess, so there's going to be a lot of two-earner households.

MALONE: And you could imagine each person making $40,000 a year and then qualifying for this category.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And also, they're middle-aged, which, I guess, is, like, peak earning, right?

CASSELMAN: Yeah. And let me just note one other thing, which is that our modal American is white.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: And we know that white Americans, for all sorts of reasons - historical and ongoing racism, educational opportunities - for lots of reasons, white Americans tend to earn more, and they have better job opportunities, even if they don't have a college degree.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Anything - what was surprising to you? Any of this surprising - the outcome?

CASSELMAN: So in the same way that your kids ended up being the modal experience, we kind of expected that retirees would be that modal experience, all...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

CASSELMAN: ...Sort of looking the same on some level, even if they'd had different careers leading up to it. But that was not the case.

MALONE: OK. So Jacob...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

MALONE: ...You heard our prerecorded phone conversation with modal Dan.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

MALONE: But we thought it might be nice to give you the chance to talk to our modal American yourself, live, right now.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

MALONE: And if everything went correctly, we should have Dan on the line. Dan, are you there?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Hello, modal American.

SAMEDI: Hello. That's me.

MALONE: Oh.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Oh, there he is. How are you?

SAMEDI: I'm well. Thanks. How are you?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I'm good. Tell me about you. I don't know anything about you.

SAMEDI: Yes, you do.

MALONE: (Laughter).

CASSELMAN: (Laughter).

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Well-played.

MALONE: So obviously, we couldn't talk to all 2 million of our modal Americans.

SAMEDI: Right.

MALONE: But we would like to ask you some very specific questions about you as a modal American.

SAMEDI: OK.

MALONE: Let's start with - we know your Gen X. But how old are you, Dan?

SAMEDI: I'm 47.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: You said you work at a car dealership.

SAMEDI: Yeah.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: What kind of car do you drive?

SAMEDI: Well, I'm a middle-aged white guy listening to NPR. I drive a Volvo wagon.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Whoo.

MALONE: Yeah. What kind of shoes?

SAMEDI: It's a standard Puma.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: That's a very middle-aged dad shoe.

MALONE: Jacob's wearing very similar shoes right now. You're married, I know. You have kids?

SAMEDI: We have one. He's 20 and goes...

MALONE: Oh, 20. Wow.

SAMEDI: Yeah, he goes to University of Massachusetts Lowell, studying to become an electrical engineer.

CASSELMAN: Does it feel like he's got to go do that in order to have the same kind of lifestyle that you've been able to have?

SAMEDI: That's the impression I get, for sure. My wife and I both grew up in rural New Hampshire. Times were a lot tighter for us than they are now. And I don't do poorly. But fortunately, my wife is a nurse at Mass General Hospital. So she is, like, the primary breadwinner. And we have been able to travel quite a bit and show him things and kind of experiences that my wife and I never experienced when we were younger. And I don't want it to take him 25 years to get back to, like, traveling if he wants to.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Thank you very much.

MALONE: All right. Have a modal day.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

MALONE: Don't even know what that would mean.

SAMEDI: (Laughter) I'm doing it, dude. I'm doing it.

MALONE: Take care.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Thanks.

MALONE: Bye.

CASSELMAN: So here's the thing. This is our modal American at a very particular point in time.

MALONE: Yeah.

CASSELMAN: It's a point in time when white, Gen X men are having an unusually homogenous experience. And we know that's going to change.

MALONE: Yes.

CASSELMAN: We know that if we sit down here in 20 years or 40 years, our modal American is going to look different. It's certainly not going to be Gen X. We know the country is becoming more diverse. We know it's becoming more educated. We can't predict exactly what the modal American will look like in the future, but we know that it will be different in some pretty fundamental ways.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Less likely to be white, more likely to be college-educated.

CASSELMAN: Absolutely.

MALONE: You know, one thing that I've thought a lot about - it's great we found a way to do this. But like, to what end? What...

CASSELMAN: Are you saying I wasted the last five months?

MALONE: No, no.

CASSELMAN: But maybe a little.

MALONE: But like, to what end? Like, we did all this work and discovered there's, like, a lot of white, male Gen Xers - not the most surprising answer.

CASSELMAN: So I do - I think this is more about the exercise than about the answer. But I think it is useful to think in terms of real people because when we hear these amalgamated averages - right? - the 2 1/2 kids and the mix of different kinds of income - right? - that don't represent any real people, then we're left with this sort of weird idea of a person that doesn't exist. And when we think about it this way, we get some idea of, what are the common experiences in this country and, also, what are the less common ones?

MALONE: That's true. That's true. And I suppose in that spirit of actually meeting real people who actually have these characteristics, Jacob, we do have one more surprise for you.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I can't - I've - there have been so many.

MALONE: We don't have to do it.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Do it. I want one more surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE FAT CLUB AND PIERRE DUBOST'S "WILD BABY ROCK")

MALONE: All right. Thanks to some amazing work by our producers Darian and Liza, I would like to introduce you to Mark (ph)...

MARK (GENERAL PUBLIC): Married for 12 years, together for 20.

MALONE: ...Jeff (ph)...

JEFF (GENERAL PUBLIC): I'm a real estate agent and also have a yard care business.

MALONE: ...Bruce (ph)...

BRUCE (FORT WORTH TEXAS RESIDENT): And I live in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas.

MALONE: ...Alan...

ALAN GARLAND (GENERAL PUBLIC): Alan Garland (ph)...

MALONE: ...Shawn (ph)...

SHAWN (GENERAL PUBLIC): Shawn.

MALONE: ...Ron (ph)...

RONNIE (GENERAL PUBLIC): Ronnie (ph).

MALONE: ...And Chad (ph)...

CHAD (GENERAL PUBLIC): Oh, God. I own too many plaid shirts. My wife would tell you I own too many plaid shirts (laughter)

MALONE: ...Seven more of our modal Americans.

MARK: I'm just a pretty average guy.

RONNIE: I'm just an average guy.

BRUCE: I just blend in in the background.

GARLAND: Don't get caught up in whether you're the average or above average. Just do the best you can.

YEAGER: Is there anything about you that would totally surprise people?

GARLAND: I mean, my wife's here with me. And well, she might be able to say.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON (WIFE OF RONNIE): He's not as hardcore as he likes to think he is (laughter).

YEAGER: (Laughter).

MALONE: That is a very middle-aged trait.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: What's that - hardcore?

MALONE: Being not as hardcore as you think other people think you are.

CASSELMAN: We didn't have a variable for that in our dataset.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE FAT CLUB AND PIERRE DUBOST'S "WILD BABY ROCK")

MALONE: Today’s episode was produced by Liza Yeager and Darian Woods with help from Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi and Rachel Cohn.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

MALONE: Bryant Urstadt edits our show. And a special thanks this week to Emily Lang, Cynthia Betubiza and Leena Sanzgiri. And if you are at all interested in our methodology for this episode, we're going to post it at our website, npr.org/planetmoney

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: PLANET MONEY is a production of NPR. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

MALONE: I'm Kenny Malone. Thanks for listening.

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