Don't Look to the 'Good Old Days': 31 Ways Life Is Better than Ever Before

It is a shared belief by, well, everyone, that planet Earth is going to hell in a hand basket. Poverty, hunger, inequality, Ted Cruz, gridlock, terrorism, war, pollution. It often seems like we should just pack it in right now, cash in the 401K, and head to Miami to soak up the sun while we wait for the end times. No, wait a minute. Global warming and rising sea levels are putting Miami under water. Make it Santa Fe…  Maybe, however, we should take a deep breath, a step back, and survey the landscape a little closer, because the reality is that any objective evaluation would conclude that the world is getting better. A time traveler from even just fifty years ago would look around in wonder at, if not paradise, a much better planet. Nostalgia paints the past as the good old days. Nostalgia is lying. Here are 31 ways we can breath easier about the 21st century:


1. Let’s start with lifespan, because it always helps to be alive to see how great the world is. If you were American and born in 1800, you could expect to live until the tender age of 39 (everybody was Jack Benny back then!) In 1950, the average lifespan had doubled to 68. Today, the average American lives until 79, and, as a bonus, those later years tend to be more active and healthy ones.

2.  An adjunct to our increased lifespan: retirement. A hundred years ago, when we were, on average, dying at around 50 years old, retirement was practically unknown. Today, we are still working 12 years after our ancestors had already died, and we are still able to enjoy retirement (average retirement age, 62) for an additional 16 years.

3. On the subject of working, in 1850, the average work week was 66 hours. Today? About 35 hours. At the turn of the twentieth century, the concept of a weekend was unknown. Enjoy your football game!

4.  We’re still here! In 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and hundreds of thousands of people perished. Armageddon was widely expected during the Cold War, and yet, 69 years later, the nuclear weapons have remained in their siloes. So far, at least, sanity has prevailed.

5.  In 1900 only 2% of Americans had electricity in their homes. By 1950, nearly 30% of American still had no electricity. Today, of course, electricity deprivation is almost unknown. As an added bonus, the cost of electricity, adjusted for inflation, is one-tenth what it was in 1900.

6.  Even as recently as 2008, most of that electricity came from coal and nuclear power plants. Still true today, but look out. In just six years, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 75%. Soon, solar power will be as cheap or cheaper than dirty fuels like coal, and that will solve a whole host of problems, making the world even better! (This, even more than healthcare, may be President Obama’s brightest legacy.)

7. Some (white) people fondly remember the 1950s as some sort of ideal economic era when everything was affordable and the middle class reigned. However, adjusted for inflation, the average family in 1950 made around $25,000 a year. Today we make double that amount. The truth is that we have redefined what “middle class” means. Yes, in some parts of the country homes are more expensive today, but countless other essentials are not. For instance, food. In the 1950s, Americans spent twice as much of their income on food as we do today. Relative to our incomes, food is 90% cheaper than it was in 1900 (which may be why we now, with our increased lifespan and retirement years, have time to worry about obesity…)

8. In 1960, only 10% of Americans had air conditioning. By the 70s, that had risen to about half. Today, 90% of Americans have AC. That’s a good thing in our globally warmed world (hey, no one said things were perfect!). Those 10% without AC? Mostly in cooler climate areas.

9. In 1900, no one had refrigerators. Today even some of our cars have them.

10. At the turn of the century, most Americans would have felt lucky to get through grade school. In 2014, despite all the negative (much of it not wrong) publicity about the state of our schools, high school graduation is at a 40 year high.

11. In 1940, if you had a bachelor’s degree, you were among the elite, indeed. Only 5% of Americans had one. Today, over 30% of Americans hold college degrees.

12. In 1950, that so-called golden era of America, 40% of Americans had no telephone. Today, in the age of the cell phone, there are almost 6 phones per household.

13. And check out one of those smartphones you have lying around the house. They all have free GPS apps on them, making sure in 2014 that you will never get lost again (although admittedly, some of the weird circuitous routes the GPS maps out may be puzzling…). No one could say that even 15 years ago.

14. While we are on the subject, a long distance call from New York to San Francisco cost $341 in 1915. In 1960, it cost just under $13. Today, unlimited talk, text, and data costs us as little as $5 a month.

15. Adjusted for inflation, in 1940, the average Social Security benefit was $378. Today it is just under $1300. For the elderly, there is no doubt things are better. (And the reason we are having that national discussion about Social Security being underfunded? We’re living longer!)

16. We think of the U.S. as a sort of Wild, Wild West, and, compared with much of the western world, we are. Still, the murder rate in America has dropped, from the 1990s to now, from an average of almost 21,000 a year to just over 16,000 a year. That is 5000 people per year alive today that might have died otherwise.

17. Other crime in America has plummeted too since 1991. Rapes down from 42 per 100,000 to 27. Robberies down from 272 per 100,000 to 119. This even though our population has ballooned by 60 million people.

18. The mortality rate in the U.S. for newborns has dropped from 58 per 1000 in 1933 to just 6 per 1000 in 2010. That works out to just under a quarter million American infants a year who survive today that might have died 80 years ago. And this is not just an American trend. In 1960, worldwide, a child had a 20% chance of dying before age 5. Today it is under 5%.

19. In 1918, up to 100 million people died worldwide from a flu pandemic. Today we can head down to the “Corner of Happy and Healthy” and get out flu shots at Walgreens for 25 bucks (or nothing if covered by health insurance).

20. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That’s too low, and no one save for Republicans in the pocket of Big Business would contest that. Still, in the 1940s, adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was under $4 an hour, so we can at least acknowledge the improvement, right?

21. Airplane travelers please note: the cost of a round trip ticket has fallen 50% since the late 1970s. And while we are on that subject, airplane accident fatalities have fallen, also by 50%, since 1960.

22. No one would argue that racism is dead (well, maybe Chief Justice John Roberts and a bunch of lunkhead right-wingers…), and incidents like Ferguson, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are proof that we have a long way to go. But we can say that in 1900, as a legacy of slavery, 45% of African-Americans were unable to read, and in later decades, African-Americans were all but excluded from the college experience due to Jim Crow and segregation. Today the illiteracy rate among African-Americans is, for all intents and purposes, zero, and over four and a half million African-Americans hold 4-year college degrees.

23. In 1965, smoking was cool. “More Doctors Smoked Camels Than Any Other cigarette!” Ronald Reagan hawked Chesterfield cigarettes (“I’m sending Chesterfields to all my friends. That’s the merriest Christmas any smoker can have”). 40% of adults smoked back then. Today, about 19%, going a long way towards explaining our longer lifespan.

24. In 1970, Africa was looked upon as a hopeless case. Famine, poverty, disease. Many of those problems still exist (the Ebola epidemic being the most newsworthy example), but today, 7 out of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa, the percentage for African children in school has doubled, and lifespan for women has increased by 16 years.

25. Since 1990, global hunger has dropped 39% according to the Global Hunger Index.

26. Every year 55,000 people are dying from war-related causes. That is a sobering figure. But not as sobering as the 100,000 a year who were dying in the 1990s, or the 180,000 a year who were dying from 1950 to the late 80s. Despite what it seems like, we are a less violent world today.

27. Worldwide, according to a U.N. report, people living in extreme poverty (defined as less than $1.25 per day) has halved since 1990, down from 43.1% to 20.6%. Poverty has decreased more in the past 50 years than the previous 500 years.

28. More than half of the world’s population now calls cities their home. This is a good thing, as urban living is more energy efficient and ecologically friendly to the planet. 

29. Cars today get twice as much mileage and are far less polluting than their counterparts in 1970.

30. The world’s population growth is slowing. The rate of increase has been falling for 50 years. If this continues, the overall population will peak in 2075 and actually begin falling. All this despite a longer lifespan and lower infant mortality rates.

31. The Internet! We can communicate. We can educate ourselves. We can cause social change. The world is now our neighbor. We can’t ignore our neighbors anymore.

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