Our Social World

Were the Good Old Days Actually Good?

Were the good old days actually good?

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.

Life expectancy

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.

Infant mortality

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.

Food supply

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.

Hygiene

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.

War

Global deaths in conflict since the year 1400

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.

The present

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?

43 thoughts on “Were the Good Old Days Actually Good?”

  1. When life was simpler – yes but that does not go back more than 50 or 60 years, thank you very much. Everytime I watch a ‘period’ movie the only thing that stays in my mind is the filth. Modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, hot and cold water on demand, gas/electric stoves, hell, electricity for that matter, all wonders of the modern world and much appreciated. Workers, at all levels are probably more stressed now than in the last 100 years. Man’s inhumanity to man? Well, that’s a given, isn’t it?

  2. I shouldn’t be smiling as I read your post, but you have a way with words. Just cracks me up.
    And no, the past wasn’t any better. And yes, people suck, but not all of us, and not all the time…I hope.

  3. Although I can see many moments in which we’ve lost something that was good for us, I think that people exaggerate the pros of the past because a loss will affect us more than a gain can.

    An example would be when someone wishes they could go back to being children… except when we were children, we wanted to be grown up. We want the freedom that comes with being an adult, but mourn the moments in which we were free of responsibility. If we could revert back to being children, we’d probably mourn the loss of freedom once again.

  4. People looking back on the “good old days,” even few decades ago, probably don’t realize they were only good for them and not anyone else. I wouldn’t want to go back to the 1960’s when people still separated blacks and whites. Even 10 years ago, if a woman worked at the hangar I currently work at, it would have been hell. One of my senior coworkers has told me about the harassment she dealt with. Quite honestly, things are moving in the right direction.

  5. Sorry – it posted my website, not my comment LOL
    The improvements in sanitation give me hope that others will continue to experience positive change over time.
    Social media? I agree, not helpful, brings out the worst. Havent used it in years.

  6. If you were having kids, which you probably were pre-birth control,

    For some people. For others there was significant infertility — 10% in the Middle Ages, mostly for reasons that would be easily treatable today.

    I expected you to quote Steven Pinker, who has written a lot about the world being less violent (in terms of war and also violent crime) now than in the past, despite popular perceptions.

    I don’t like social media, but I don’t blame it for this. I think people have had a rose-tinted view of the past for a long time, long before FB, Twitter and Instagram. I suspect it’s because, unless you were neglected or abused, your own childhood probably seemed quite good, because you had parents who dealt with the difficult and scary stuff. You weren’t aware of what was happening in the world, unless you lived in a war zone or the like. When people say things were better, they mean their childhood was easier than adulthood.

    There’s also the problem that people remember more about the present than the past, which is why Best Movie/Song/Book Ever lists tend to be so skewed to recent examples. People remember recent wars, crimes, pandemics etc. and forget the past.

    1. The Better Angels of Our Nature is still on my TBR list. He should really record a video version of it so I could be fascinated by his hair while listening…

      It’s interesting that the negativity bias and recency bias seem to combine to create rose-coloured glasses.

      I think that’s a very good point about parents dealing with the difficult stuff in the past. Even though I was exposed to a fair bit of news growing up, there was always a sense of distance, because it was all happening in adult world, and I could just go to my room, pop a Tiffany tape in the cassette player, and dance around. Ah, rose-coloured glasses…

  7. The only people who whine about the “good old days” are old, privileged white men who used to get away with more horribleness. Everyone else understands that those days sucked for most people. The only thing that was better, pre-industrial rev, was a cleaner planet. But you got to enjoy that for 40 years, maybe, if you didn’t die in childbirth or in a war or from starvation, etc. And things are still bad, as you point out, just less bad…

    1. Funny how now there are younger, privileged white men whining about how they aren’t as privileged now as their older counterparts. Damn those women and their whole equality nonsense! 🙄

  8. I think the good old days are currently kept alive by photos, recently from cameras and more recently from cell phones. Each snapshot in theory captures a time when we are all having fun and it gets posted all over everywhere nowadays through social media. But, if you go back to the moment in time when the snapshot was taken there was probably a morass of emotion going on — I hate standing next to Uncle Fred because he makes me look fat. I forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer to thaw for dinner. I am dreading this psychology exam due tomorrow. But the picture just simplifies everything into one rosy smile (if people are smiling in the picture). These snapshots tend to mark time for us — they show how we are getting older, fatter, wiser? It is nice to put them into a photo album. But do we remember in doing that that we are just remembering the best of those moments or the best as we remember them, not necessarily the totality of those moments? Photo posting like history in the history books is a selective process. Perhaps the past is the good old days because we are so selective in what we choose to immortalize and remember through snapshots — now an every day happening. All is OK if we can just remember that that snapshot was only one one hundredth of what was happening in the moment the picture was taken.

  9. I read that there exists an ancient stone tablet with inscriptions by King Naram Sin of Chaldea which says, “We have fallen upon evil times
    and the world has waxed very old and wicked.
    Politics are very corrupt.
    Children are no longer respectful to their parents”. Later translations to his inscriptions suggest that he thought they were living during the apocalypse. He was around in 3800BC. I guess this is an ongoing crisis…

  10. Oh I don’t know if they were necessarily better, but they were a lot less stressful. To me that means that YEAH, a good majority of the time they were better. Bullying and all that shit existed ‘back then’ too, but got less attention (good and bad; good that the problem has been focused on and stopped much of the time/bad that it’s considered ‘news’ now and a lot of folks run around being butt hurt over trivial stuff. In my opinion,)

    I have had a mostly so/so life, but I remember some periods in that life as a lot better than things are now. I wasn’t so frail and lame then. I wasn’t as cynical. My mental illness wasn’t as overwhelming. I had companionship and I felt motivated. All those thing about the past were good things.

    I can find shittiness everywhere if I look for it. People by and large are stupid and thoughtless and mean – “mob’ mentality. It might be playing ostrich, but if I deliberately don’t look for shitty, I don’t often find it, now or then. It’s all in the perspective when it comes down to it.

    1. I wonder if in a more general sense life tends to be easier when we’re younger and harder when we’re older. Certainly for me, healthwise things were way better when I was younger.

  11. Plus I think abuse of all sorts was overlooked. Now sexual abuse is no longer just a secret in the family as much I feel… sex with a twelve year old was normal as life expectancy was so low and forget about leaving your husband if he beats you.

  12. These days we tend to be a lot more self-aware (or self-conscious?), which I think breeds greater unhappiness.

    We grow up, enter the workforce, and work hard to earn money, to one day buy things that would signal life satisfaction–like a car or a house. But then we are hyper aware of our position in life as we witness a 10-year-old Youtube star making millions of dollars by simply filming himself playing video games at home.

    The greatest predictor of happiness/discontent is not the things that we objectively have, but our perception of life events. I think that’s why the present seems particularly awful.

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