We lead the best lives that humans have ever had. With all the doom and gloom going on in the world around us, seemingly unending wars being fought in the middle east and still all too many people suffering of extreme poverty and hunger in less economically developed countries, this is easy to forget. Yet it is true, and especially in light of seemingly unsolvable crises and problems, it is well worth slowing down and taking a look at the empirical evidence that exists, reminding ourselves that: yes, there are problems, but yes, our lives are actually pretty good.
Let us look at four statistics that prove this.
As people, we hope for and wish each other long and prosperous lives. It should therefore only seem natural to have life expectancy be a critical indicator to see how well-off we are.
In fact, life expectancy is extremely capable of showing the progress which a society, a country or humanity as a whole has made, as a wide variety of factors factor into how old we get. For one, there’s the quality of medical services and their affordability; medical supplies in a country may be top-notch, but if the majority of the population is unable to access or afford them, then that will not improve the average duration of a citizen’s life. Pollution plays a role, too: severe smog, or pollution of drinking water or food resources may result in an earlier death. Due to its telltale nature, life expectancy is used as one of the three categories which are combined to form the HDI – the other two being literacy rates and standards of living.
Looking at the graph on hand, we can see that the global average life expectancy has exceeded 72 years at the last data point in 2016, a truly impressive value and even more so when one takes into consideration that just over fifty years earlier, the global life expectancy was at just over 52 years. Many developing countries have seen a dramatic increase in their life expectancy. The example presented here is China, which has experienced an incredible boost in life expectancy from just 43 to 76 years through the same 56-year time period. Other developing nations have followed or are following China’s example, skyrocketing themselves and their citizens into a better future.
The upward trend continues: the world’s healthcare systems, the degree to which the governments are able to access and help even the most disadvantaged citizens, and advances in the scientific fields relating to medicine are all contributing factors to this trend.
Perhaps it is the chart of the global life expectancy that best encapsulates why we should be at the very least tentatively optimistic about our future as humankind.
At first sight, it may seem counter-intuitive that falling fertility rates are something positive and worthy of recognition as a great achievement. But in fact, fertility rates tell us more than simply how many children the women of a country or the world have.
Generally, more developed countries see a lower birth rate. This is due to a number of reasons, including urbanization and more women working as well, thus having less time to be used as housewives and exclusively take care of the raising of children. Better education also plays a role – both because it helps with employment and equality of women, and because sexual education makes the previously potentially unknown or abstract concepts of contraception a lot more tangible and accessible. It is especially the access to birth control measures – whether because of greater individual prosperity, or because of government-subsidized programs – that results in a drop of fertility rates.
Though low fertility rates are causing aging populations in some parts of the world, especially developed nations such as Germany or Japan, the overall global drop in fertility rates still evidences that great progress has been made in the categories of equality, education and birth control and will likely continue for the years to come.
How tall we are
Globally, people have gotten taller. Comparable data is relatively difficult to come by, but the development in the Netherlands (who have admirably collected the average height of their men every 10 years for over a century) from the late 19th century to the modern day is one example of just how significant the change in height has been.
Height is used as an indicator for two main areas which contribute to human development: the quality of nutrition and health. It is due to the differences especially in nutritional quality that the citizens of the DPRK (North Korea) are several centimeters shorter than their South Korean counterparts, who hadn’t experienced a famine in the mid-1990s.
People who experience severe malnutrition during childhood or adolescence will very commonly be shorter than expected, despite not having any medical conditions which would result in such a reduction of height.
Seeing a general upward trend over the decades, in individual countries and globally, therefore suggests that the world’s food supply has become increasingly secure and that a decreasing percentage of our kind are facing malnutrition. Though it may seem abstract at first, height can tell us a lot about how far we have climbed.
Time spent at work
“Stress”, “burnout” and “24/7” are words that many people today use to describe their jobs – but de facto, most of the world, especially the developing countries, has reached a low point in terms of how many hours a week one must spend providing for the family.
Here, we have the example of Germany, where in 1880, an average person would have to work 66 hours each week (or nine and a half hours each day, seven days a week) to provide for their family. A sharp drop was seen in the early 20th century with ever increasing industrial automation and a shift to the tertiary and later quaternary sectors of the economy. In the past 20 or 30 years, the number of hours worked has stayed rather constant at around 40 each week – 8 hours a day, but over only five days. If we’d work seven days a week like we did in 1880, we would spend just over five and a half hours at work each day.
Less time at works gives us more free time to allocate as we wish and has the potential to give people more headspace to concern themselves with other matters – potentially driving innovation and discovery. Or potentially driving Netflix binge watches.
In any case – the less work time is needed to provide for oneself and one’s family, the more one can make of one’s life almost entirely without limitations.
All of the above measures, and countless other statistics, prove in definitive, empirical terms that in our modern world, we lead a better life than any of the generations before us. Let us treasure what we have achieved and not rest on our laurels – for even with such great advances, there remains lots to be done.
“Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Woman).” Literacy Rate, Adult Female (% of Females Ages 15 and above) | Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN.
“Life Expectancy at Birth, Total (Years).” Literacy Rate, Adult Female (% of Females Ages 15 and above) | Data, data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN.
Mingels, Guido. Früher War Alles Schlechter: Warum Es Uns Trotz Kriegen, Krankheiten Und Katastrophen Immer Besser Geht. Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2017.
Roser, Max. “Human Height.” Our World in Data, 22 Jan. 2019, ourworldindata.org/human-height.