The world is going to Hell in a handbasket, right? Things were so much better “back in the day” — the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, depending on when you were born — right? Just watch the TV news, read your email or glance at Facebook — it’s all terrible out there, right? Bull.
Setting aside the natural nostalgia we all have for when we and the people we love were younger, healthier and still alive, we can compare today with yesterday and make an honest assessment. The short answer is: Removing our emotions from the equation makes the present look a lot less sinister and the past a lot less innocent. This is especially true when we consider life for women and minorities — who comprise the bulk of humanity.
While we still have problems and our journey toward social justice still has a way to go, the fact is we’ve come a very long way and our problems are look far less impossible to solve than they used to. For most of our species, this is the best of times (so far).
Let us consider a few important data points.
We’re all living much longer. Between 1950 and early 2011, global life expectancy jumped from 47 to 70. More than a third of babies born today will live to be 100. Our improved health is making us richer, too: “In economic terms, the cost of poor health at the outset of the 20th century was an astounding 32 percent of global GDP. Today, it is down to about 11 percent, and by 2050 it will be half that.”
The president is black. Yes, racial prejudice still exists, but earlier in my own lifetime men like Obama didn’t even have voting rights, and his presidency (elected twice) will have a profound and positive impact on America’s future.
The next president is likely a woman. That, too, will make America’s future brighter than it was before. That, too, shows incredible progress from where women were in this country just a short time ago.
Children are safer now than ever “….child victimization rates in the United States have dropped dramatically over the last three decades and may be at their lowest point ever. Between 1970 (when detailed figures became available) and 2009 every category of child victimization has declined: child sexual abuse down 53 percent; physical abuse down 52 percent; aggravated assault down 69 percent; robbery down 62 percent; larceny down 54 percent. Bullying has dropped by a third in the last five years. And despite the horrors and headlines of stranger abduction … confirmed cases are so rare (perhaps 100 or so a year) that the odds of your child being kidnapped and murdered stand at about 1.5 million to one.” Your children are three times more likely to be struck by lightning than abducted and killed by a stranger.
Worldwide poverty is declining: 721 million fewer people live in poverty today than in 1981.
Progress against HIV. New HIV infections among children in the seven most affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa have been reduced by 50%.
Statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species’s existence. The percent of people killed by war is 1/30th of what it was in the late 1940s.
The world is more democratic now than ever before. Just 150 years ago, the United States and Belgium were the only democracies in the world. Today, about 60% of all countries are democratic.
The growing access to the Internet is both putting the amassed knowledge of humankind at our fingertips and instantly connecting us to people around the globe. (Bonus: Married couples who met online were slightly more likely to be happy and stay together than those who ran into each other the old-fashioned way.)
Women’s rights are advancing and making us richer. “In 1900, only 15 percent of the global workforce was female. What is the loss from lower female workforce participation? Even taking into account that someone has to do unpaid housework and the increased costs of female education, the loss was at least 17 percent of global GDP in 1900. Today, with higher female participation and lower wage differentials, the loss is 7 percent—and projected to fall to 4 percent by 2050.”
Infant mortality is in sharp decline worldwide. From 1990 to 2011, the percentage of people who died before turning 5 years old fell by about half.
The education of women has grown speedily and women have overtaken men at all post-secondary degree levels.
Violence against women is in decline. “Since the 1994 Violence Against Women Act was passed, the rate of nonfatal intimate partner violence has declined by 54%. Over the same time span, the homicide rate for women has also declined by almost half.”
We are closer than we have ever been to eradicating polio. Efforts by the Rotary Club, the World Health Organization, and many others have reduced polio by 99% worldwide since 1979.
The persecution of LBGT people is shrinking dramatically as decriminalization, acceptance, and legal rights expand. Consider: “Fifty years ago, every state criminalized homosexual sex, and even the American Civil Liberties Union did not object. The federal government would not hire people who were openly gay or permit them to serve in the military. Police routinely raided gay bars. Only a handful of gay-rights organizations existed, and their membership was sparse. Most Americans would have considered the idea of same-sex marriage facetious.”
Gene sequencing has helped researchers identify single genes that cause diseases and, in turn, has aided in creating better treatments.
We’re all safer. Rates for murder, rape, robbery, and assault are the lowest they’ve been in 50 years.
Our high school graduation rate is higher than it’s been in 40 years. Significant jumps in the percentages of black and Latino students graduating were an important factor in the improved nationwide graduation rate: with a graduation rate of 68%, and the gap between Latino and white students has been cut in half; Black students posted a graduation rate of 62%, which represents a 30% narrowing of the gap with white students.
The death penalty is fading away. “Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure.”
Advances in stem cell research are opening fantastic new possibilities in medicine.
Corporal punishment of children is on the way out in a hurry. “There has been a dramatic reduction in its use over the past two generations—an unprecedented change in a pattern that likely had been fixed for millennia. In the United States, for example, 94 percent of parents endorsed hitting kids in 1968, but only one-half approved by 1999. Similar decreases occurred in countries as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Kuwait, Germany, and New Zealand. (In Sweden, the drop preceded the law against hitting kids.)”
Smoke-free areas are spreading quickly and making us all more healthy.