Are Americans as special as Obama says?

Americans, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday during his inaugural address, "are made for this moment."

Why? Because "we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention."

It's a reassuring thought, but do we Americans really possess these qualities more than any other countries?

Without a doubt, the U.S. is not particularly youthful when compared to other countries around the world. The median age in the U.S. is 37.1; the world's median age is 28.4, placing us well on the older end of the spectrum. We're younger than most of the OECD countries, but are still beaten out by Brazil (29.6), Chile (32.8), Ireland (35.1), Israel (29.5) and Mexico (27.4).

Is the U.S. very diverse? Not really, according to Stanford political scientist James Fearon. Fearon tried to measure diversity in 160 countries around the world in a 2003 study, and (with all the appropriate caveats that ethnicity is a difficult thing to define) found that the the U.S. comes in as the 85th most diverse country in the world. The most diverse western country is actually Canada, with an "ethnic fractionalization index" of .596 (the U.S.'s is .491), and we're outranked by almost every country in sub-saharan Africa, as well as Brazil (.549), Mexico (.542) and Israel (.526), among others.

How about our appetite for risk? A little trickier to measure, but a group of researchers at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin tried last November, through a study in which they conducted experiments to measure the risk tolerance of 80-100 students in 30 countries, to see how their results compared with development and growth levels. The U.S., despite our "have gun, will travel" reputation, is actually somewhat risk averse, according to this research: they give us a risk tolerance score of about .-07 - still above those stodgy Germans, but slightly below France. Meanwhile, the Brazilians (again!) seem to be a little more inclined to put some skin in the game:

Finally: do we have more capacity for reinvention than other countries? This might be the hardest characteristic to find a proxy for, but one might be how likely a country's workers are to find new jobs within a certain time period. This study, from 2004, looked at 25 countries, and found that while U.S. workers are fairly likely to keep on moving, they are still less likely to change jobs in a twelve month period than Canadians (again!) or Russians.

Whether these particular characteristics are really the ones that will count in the years to come is the subject of a separate blog post. But if Americans are "made for this moment," as Obama says, it seems that Canadians and Brazilians might be too -- or maybe even more so.


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