By any objective measure, in most parts of the globe life is far better now than it was 50 years ago. Whether one looks at poverty reduction, literacy rates, civil and political liberties, violent conflict, or overall health, the world looks much better now than in 1967. Seriously, it’s not close. Yes, one can point to local backsliding among some populations in some areas. Still, most people are mostly better off than they or their parents were a half-century ago.
I bring this up because: (a) it’s easy to forget and (b) the Pew Research Center decided to poll people across the globe about this very question. The patterns in the survey responses across countries and across different demographic groups are revealing. The answers should not be interpreted as an accurate measure of the question. Rather, the response pattern reveals what factors cause individuals to be more or less optimistic about the present compared with the past.
Consider Pew’s topline chart:
There are some unsurprising results here. Vietnam, India, South Korea, Japan, and Germany being the most positive is not shocking news. Each of these countries has achieved significant rates of economic growth for sustained periods of time over the past half-century. Similarly, given its current economic and political crisis, it is not surprising that Venezuela is the most pessimistic nation.
Nonetheless there are some genuine surprises in these topline responses. For example:
- It’s pleasantly surprising that Russians are convinced, by 50 percent to 28 percent, that life is better now than in 1967. One could ague that this has more to do with Russia’s current revanchism than a sober look at communism’s failures, but I am not sure about that. Vladimir Putin famously described the breakup of the Soviet Union as a “genuine tragedy.” It is cheering to see that most Russians do not agree.
- It is somewhat depressing that Tunisia, the one democracy in North Africa, is among the most nostalgic of all the countries in the sample, with 60 percent of respondents saying that life was better back in the day.
- Similarly, most of Latin America is far more free than it was during the late 1960s. And yet five of the 10 most pessimistic countries in the sample are from that part of the world (Peru, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela). Chile was the only Latin American country polled that thought life was better now than 50 years ago.
Beyond the national variations, Pew found three other demographic determinants of how people responded. The first was attitudes about the current economy:
Views of the current economy are a strong indicator of whether people say life for people like them is better today than it was 50 years ago, even when controlling for the demographic factors of income, education, gender and age. Indeed, across the countries analyzed, people with positive views of the current economy are 30 percentage points more likely than those with negative views to say life has improved for people like them.
You can see this expressed in chart form!
The second trait, concentrated particularly in the United States, is the degree to which political polarization affects attitudes about this question. According to Pew: “In the U.S., Republicans are more likely to say life is better today, compared with Democrats — an attitudinal shift in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016.”
The third and most fascinating demographic trait has to do with age cohorts:
In most countries, it is the younger cohorts that are more convinced that life is better now. This is particularly surprising given that older cohorts would retain some first-person memories of the last half-century.
So, to sum up: Objectively, life is better now than it was 50 years ago. Whether you think that is true has an awful lot to do with one’s own personal circumstances. Greater democratization does not automatically translate into greater contentment about the status quo compared with the past. And maybe, just maybe, millennials are not the worst.