Best of Times, Worst of Times – At the Same Time??

Depending on what you read, you might think we are living in the best of times, or you might think we are living in arguably the worst of times. But this is nothing really new. You can always find writers that espouse both views at any given time.

Today, I will summarize two interesting articles I read in the last two weeks that come to very different conclusions regarding where the country and society are headed. One concludes that most everything is getting better based on a certain set of facts, while the other argues that things are getting worse based on other data.

I’ll try to briefly describe them both below. My question is, which to address first? I think I’ll start with the Best of Times argument. Here goes.

The Best of Times argument, for our purposes today, stems in part from a recent book by Swedish writer Jonah Norberg entitled Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.” In the book – on topics including food, life expectancy, violence, poverty, the environment, literacy, and freedom – Norberg argues persuasively how pretty much all of the world has gotten considerably better off over the last couple of centuries and especially in the last few decades.

I can only summarize his points briefly due to space limitations, but here are some of the highlights.

Food consumption: In the middle of the 18th century, Europeans consumed less than 2,000 calories per day on average. Food was relatively scarce. Yet by 1950, this had increased to 3,000 calories per day, and it’s even higher today. We have food in abundance.

Life expectancy: In 1800, the life expectancy around the world was about 30 years.  Today, it’s around 70 globally. A huge part of that gain is due to the decline in child mortality. Norberg notes that between 1960 and today, the death rate for children under five who were born in low-and-middle-income countries fell from 232 per 1,000 live births to just 47.

Poverty: After declining dramatically in the richer countries in the 20th century, it has declined worldwide in recent years. At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, representatives of the world’s governments set a goal of reducing extreme poverty by 50% by the year 2015. In fact, this goal was met by 2010.

Environment: The amount of oil spilled in the ocean between 2000 and 2014 was 257,000 tons total. This sounds big – and it is – but that was the amount spilled annually in the 1970s. Likewise, air pollution is far lower today than it used to be in developed countries.

Literacy: The global literacy rate, which was only 21% in 1900, had increased to 40% by 1950 and to 86% by 2015. That’s huge! This is despite the fact that many agree public schooling standards have declined in recent decades.

I could go on with improvements, but I must stop there. Now let’s look at the other side, which focuses only on troubling trends in American society.

Recent studies have shown that Americans are retiring later, dying sooner and are sicker in between. The US retirement age is rising, as the government pushes it higher and workers stay in careers longer.

Yet lifespans are no longer increasing to offer traditional time for retirement. Recent data indicate that Americans’ health is declining, and millions of middle-age workers face the prospect of shorter, and less active, retirements than their parents enjoyed. Here are the stats.

The US age-adjusted mortality rate – a measure of the number of deaths per year – rose 1.2% from 2014 to 2015, according to the Society of Actuaries. That’s the first year-over-year increase since 2005, and only the second rise greater than 1% since 1980. Of course, it remains to be seen if this trend continues.

At the same time that Americans’ life expectancy is stalling, millions of US workers are waiting longer to retire. Almost one in three Americans age 65 to 69 is still working, along with almost one in five in their early 70s.

Yet Americans in their late 50s now have more serious health problems than people at the same ages did 10 to 15 years ago, according to the Health Affairs Journal.

So, are we living in the best of times or the worst of times? That’s a contentious debate that will surely continue.

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