This post was inspired by a recent post by Rory of A Guy Called Bloke that asked whether the world is going downhill. It certainly does feel sometimes like the world is going to hell in a handbasket (why is that the conveyance of choice for that particular trip?), but it’s also easy to have a skewed perspective of the past. So were the good old days actually good? I would argue that they were most certainly not.
Looking back at the past
If we take off the rosy-coloured glasses and look back a ways, things weren’t so pretty.
People didn’t have the luxury of worrying about things being shitty back in the day, because they didn’t have much time to spare. Besides the fact that most people had to work more than we do now, they also had a lot less life to get things done in.
In 1800, the average life expectancy in Europe was 33.3 years (source: Our World In Data). In 1900, it was 42.7 years in Europe, but 32 years worldwide. By 1950, it was 62 in Europe and 45.7 worldwide. Compare that to 78.6 in Europe and 72.6 worldwide in 2019. If it was 1900, I would be dead right about now. Progress isn’t always a good thing.
If you were having kids, which you probably were pre-birth control, chances are that some of those kids were dying.
In 1800, the mortality rate for children under 5 years old was 329 per 1000 live births, so there was almost a 1 in 3 chance your kid would die by age 5 (source: Statista). In 1900, it was 228 deaths per 1000 live births, which dropped to 44.27 in 1950 and only 4 in 2020.
Part of why we’ve gotten taller and live longer is that there’s a reliable food supply. In France in the year 1705, the daily per capita supply of Calories in France was 1657. Of course, that wasn’t distributed equally, so the rich got more and the poor got a lot less. A century later, Marie Antoinette came along and said let them eat cake, but she and her peeps had eaten it all.
In 1900, both France and the US were at about 3200. There was a dip around the time of World War II, and then it climbed to 3460 in France and 3682 in the US in 2013.
We’re doing well in the Western world, but “Some 2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed* drinking water services, 4.2 billion people do not have safely managed sanitation services, and 3 billion lack basic handwashing facilities.” (Source: World Health Organization). That’s actually a big improvement over the not-so-distant past. Since the year 2000, 1.8 billion people have gained access to basic drinking water services and 2.1 billion people have gained access to basic sanitation services. That’s a lot of people who have it better now.
Humans like to kill each other, but that’s nothing new. This graph shows global deaths in conflict since the year 1400. Rather than showing absolute numbers, it shows rates of death per 100,000 in various conflicts as dots, with the overall rate in the red line. The size of the circle for each conflict reflects how many people were killed overall.
World War I and II were pretty up there, but since then, we’re on a downward trend and killing each other less than we used to.
Civil rights and society
In Canada and the US, women have only had the right to vote for about 100 years. Racial segregation was enshrined in law in the US up until the 1960s.
People have never been particularly tolerant of others who were different, and that differentness has often been used as an excuse for killing people (again, we like to do that). The Soviets killed millions of Ukrainians in the Holodomor, an artificially-created famine in 1932-1933. The Nazis slaughtered millions of Jews during the Holocaust, Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward killed millions in China from 1958-1962, and more than a million were killed under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975-1979. People are shitty, and they’ve always been shitty.
So why does it feel like the world is so shitty right now? I’ve got a few ideas.
One likely factor is that we have more free time to think about the world because we’re working less than we used to. In 1870, the annual working hours per worker were 3096 in the US and 2755 in the UK (source: Our World In Data). In 1950, those figures were 1989 and 2184, respectively, and in 2017, people worked 1757 and 1670 hours per year.
The internet, social media, and the fact that everyone has mobile devices makes information about the world and its shittiness much easier to access. Back in the day, you might consume news by reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, or, in the more recent past, watching the evening news; now, you can be bombarded constantly with news about what’s going on in every corner of the world.
I think that social media really does bring out the worst in humanity. I don’t really blame social media platforms for that, because the shittiness was already there. We could all stop using social media platforms if we were so inclined, and they’d go broke without the advertising dollars, but people choose to keep using, so that’s on us.
Social media means that blowhards who used to have no one to rant to can now easily access a wide audience. They’re able to congregate in ways they never could before. I’m inclined to think that political polarization is not because people have more different attitudes or are less tolerant; rather, it’s because they can congregate with like others so easily. The more that people have a sense that they’re taking a position as part of a group, the easier it is to be intolerant of people outside that group, because they’ve got their tribe to back them up.
How about those good old days?
The good old days weren’t good. For many of us, life was probably simpler back in the day, but I think the world had just as many problems then as it does now. And it all comes down to the fact that people suck, they always have sucked, and I’m quite sure they always will suck.
How’s that for optimistic? Now over to you—do you think the good old days were actually good?