Commentary Magazine


The Good Old Days? No Thanks.

Two weeks ago, I posted about a chart that plotted fertility against life expectancy over the past 50 years. It showed how the former dropped sharply in most countries as the latter increased, one reason why the “population explosion” that was supposed to turn the world into Bangladesh isn’t going to happen.

Here’s another animated chart. This one plots life expectancy against per capita income over the past 200 years for 200 countries around the world. In 1810, the whole world was poor and died young. Life, in Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Even Britain, the richest country in the world at the time, was, by modern standards, very poor.

But over the past 200 years, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, which greatly accelerated the rate of economic growth, the world has gotten much richer, and that wealth has spread across the socioeconomic spectrum. Thanks to vastly improved public health and medical technology — funded by the new wealth — life expectancy has greatly increased. At first, these trends were confined to the West. But especially in the past 50 years, they have spread to more and more countries, and the percentage of people still living Hobbesian lives has greatly declined.

The phrase “the good old days” was coined in the 1840s, just as the Industrial Revolution was kicking into high gear, and the remembered past, at least for the elderly, began to differ markedly from the present for the first time in human history. The great New York diarist Philip Hone, then in his 60s, wrote in 1844 that “this world is going too fast. Improvements, politics, reform, religion — all fly. Railroads, steamers, packets, race against time and beat it hollow. Flying is dangerous. By and by we shall have balloons and pass over to Europe between sun and sun. Oh, for the good old days of heavy post-coaches and speed at the rate of six miles an hour!”

As the chart shows, the change that Hone felt threatened by has been overwhelmingly for the good for nearly everyone. The good old days he nostalgically looked back on were not so good.