Are we in a Golden Age?

(cross-posted from Troppo)

It is easy to become absorbed in particular problems and in the disaster stories that dominate the daily media. Climate change, natural disasters, wars in Africa and Asia, Financial Crises, riots and food price rises: you would be forgiven for thinking the world is going to the dogs. Is it really, however, or is that just the gloom you get from staring at the problems and not smelling the roses?

The major indicators of how we as humans are doing are smelling exceptionally rosy. We are living in a golden age of progress and opportunity for humanity. Let’s list some of the big changes in recent times:

  1. Life expectancy is going up by a lot. Whereas the average Australian would not have expected to see 50 in 1885, the average Australian now can expect to live beyond 80. The same trend goes for both developed and developing countries. For the world as a whole, the World Bank reports that life expectation has thus crept up from about 52 in 1960 to 69 in 2009. And the increase is greatest in poorer countries, so there is even increased equity in terms of life expectancy by country.
  2. There are more of us every year, but the numbers are stabilising. According to this source, we used to be with no more than 50 million some 3000 years ago, reached 1,5 billion in 1900, now count close to 7 billion, and can expect to be with close to 10 billion in 2050 after which a reduction is expected. Whilst the increased number of humans, who can all expect to live longer than our ancestors ever could, is itself a sign of success, the expected peaking, due to reduced fertility levels virtually everywhere in the world, is also very good news because it means the old nightmare-scenario of a Malthusian melt-down is now highly unlikely.
  3. We are less and less violent. Trends in murders and homicide are at incredibly low levels from an historical point of view: whereas our hunter-gatherer ancestors were believed to kill off about 1 in a 100 every year, modern Western society sees one homicide per 10,000 as very violent, corresponding to exceptionally violent countries like the US. More normal levels are in the order of 2 per 100,000. Globally, the trends have even been going down in the last 10 years. Trends in armed conflict also speak of exceptionally peaceful times. The Upsalla Conflict Data Program thus collects statistics on how many combatants die in total in organised conflicts around the world. The basic facts are that the period just after WWII was easily 5 times as violent as the 1980s per capita, whilst the 2000s are easily twice less violent again than the 1980s. The trend for the last 10 years too has also been clearly downward in per capita terms.
  4. Less of us are poor and more have access to basic facilities (clean water, sanitation, literacy, etc.). Global output growth in 2011 is in the 2-3% range, the vast bulk of which in poorer countries. Great news for inequality reduction hence.
  5. We are getting happier as the poor amongst us are getting richer. As one can see from the World Value Survey, the relation between income and happiness is very robust by country and we furthermore know that countries who escape dire poverty also increase their happiness. So the world as a whole is almost certainly getting happier. Even within countries that are in an economic downturn like the US, the average life satisfaction is about as high as it was before the downturn.

And this is not even mentioning the Arab Spring or advances in science and gadgetry. Our ancestors could only dream of humanity having it this good.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

2 thoughts on “Are we in a Golden Age?”

  1. Whereas the average Australian would not have expected to see 50 in 1885, the average Australiannow can expect to live beyond 80.

    Why do clever people seem to elide life expectancy statistics so much? What you are saying is not factually wrong, when talking about averages. But it is not as if people on the whole reached 50 in 1885 and keeled over. Most of the difference in average lifespan across the population, is down to decreases in infant mortality.

    I’m not saying life was roses pre-antibiotics. But in 1885, if you survived childhood diseases, and didn’t march off to war, you had a pretty good chance of a long life. 


  2. zee,  
    what you say has some merit, but is merely unpacking the main point of using life expectancy as a summary statistic: increases in life expectancy partially mean fewer of our kids die in childbirth which is surely a good thing.
    The increases in life expectancy is not just about infant mortality and the disappearance of major wars. The big thing in the increases of the last 30 years in the West is the reduced mortality in the 50-70 range. We no longer die in droves of heart-attacks in that age-range. Another good thing, surely?


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