Are things better or worse than 50 years ago?

I saw reference the other day to a new(ish) multi-country survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, asking people in 38 countries whether life in their country was better, worse, or not much different for people like them than it had been 50 years previously.  Among the people I saw tweeting a link to the survey results, there seemed to be general incredulity that anyone could not think things were better now than they had been 50 years previously.  The focus of those comments was particularly on the US results, where 41 per cent of respondents thought things were worse, and 37 per cent though things were better.

But, as it happens, the US results were close to the middle of the field.


At the extremes, the results are not remotely surprising. In 1967 Vietnam had been in the midst of a longrunning war, and now is relatively prosperous and stable, even if not free.  And in 1967 Venezuela was pretty prosperous, whereas now it is poor and chaotic.

And if it is mostly rich countries above the median line, and mostly poor countries below it, that picture isn’t uniform.

New Zealand wasn’t covered by the survey, but Australia, the UK, and the US were.  Australian and British respondents were net positive, while US respondents were slightly net negative.   To the extent that overall economic performance is a material part of what shapes respondents’ answers to such a question, I suspect that New Zealand answers would be less positive than those for the US and the UK.  After all, over that half century almost a million New Zealanders net left the country in pursuit of better opportunities abroad, mostly in Australia.

In a bit over half the countries covered in the survey (but not, for example, in Australia), there was a statistically significant difference in which those with a higher education were more likely than the less educated to say that things had improved.

pew 2

Without being aware of this survey, I wrote about the 2017 vs 1967 question on another blog a few months ago.   I came to the conclusion that, taken as a whole, I’d answer “worse” if asked this particular survey question about New Zealand (even though transplanted 50 years back, this blog would have been impossible, and I’d have been grinding out an existence in some public sector job, probably longing for retirement).

Here is how, in that earlier post, I described some of the things I would put on the positive side of any such assessment.

For sure, there are things to be thankful for –  that favour 2017 over 1967.   Real per capita GDP, for example, is around twice what it was 50 years ago –  that is the ability to consume more stuff.  “More stuff” encompasses “better stuff” –  cars that are better-built, that are air-conditioned; TVs that offer (in NZ) more than a single channel; a rich array of eating-out options; much more affordable overseas travel, and smartphones with the resources of the internet in our pocket.   And yet in 1967 New Zealand most people had fridges, ovens, washing machines, TVs and radios, cars, and it is far from obvious how much real gain new and better gadgets have brought.  Some no doubt, but much?   People like to talk, for example, of the immediacy of news via the internet.  But how many of us really need that immediacy that much?  I look at some copies of Time magazine on my shelves from the late 1960s –  sure it was only weekly, but the content was generally far superior to that in today’s newspapers or news magazines.  I’m not suggesting I’d prefer the 1967 model in this respect, but how large is the gain?  (In some ways, this is  economist Robert Gordon’s point)  After all, in 1969 I heard the broadcast of the moon landing live, played out into our school playground.

Life expectancy is quite a bit longer than it was too –  infant mortality has dropped further, and life expectancy among the old has also improved considerably.    And there are more work options for women in particular –  if most discriminatory laws had gone by 1967, old models in which married women were typically out of the workforce either permanently or for long periods while children were around still prevailed.  In many more-formal ways, options for Maori have considerably improved –  witness the number of Maori MPs as just one small example.  In 1967 people like me couldn’t find an audience with something like a blog.

And on the other hand, specific to New Zealand:

  • so many New Zealanders have left (a regrettable thing in itself, for community and family relationships/networks etc),
  • the house price disaster.  Just prior to 1967, my parents bought a (new) first house on a single (not especially high) income.  Few have that opportunity now,
  • rates of imprisonment are so much higher now than then,
  • rates of welfare dependency are so much higher now than then,
  • a far smaller percentage of children are growing up in two-parent families,
  • the normalisation of drug use (my 13 year old niece told me the other day of recently being offered marijuana in the playground in a nice middle class New Zealand high school),
  • pervasive access to, and use of, pornography,
  • more social isolation and higher rates of mental illness,
  • the growth of the regulatory (and surveillance) state,
  • the deference paid by our elites to one of the most brutal states on earth, in contrast say to New Zealand attitudes to the Soviet Union in 1967.

I could go on to include things more specific to the decline of Christianity in the west, and in New Zealand specifically, but I won’t belabour that point here.  As a parent, my impression is that it is harder to raise children well now than then.

In the Pew results, there was not a statistically significant difference between attitudes of young and old respondents in most countries, but among those where the young were more upbeat were the UK, the US, and Australisa.  Most probably, one would find such a difference in New Zealand.

When we discussed these results around the dinner table, it was suggested that woman might be more inclined to answer positively than men.  I am not sure I share that prior, but unfortunately no results were reported by gender (perhaps suggesting that there were not any consistent or interesting differences, given the typically fairly comprehensive nature of Pew analysis).   Sadly, there also was not any analysis of differences by political inclination (liberal vs conservative), which one would expect to explain some of the differences in responses within, and perhaps between, countries.

I can see how some people would answer that things were better now (many liberals –  depending on the components of the liberal agenda emphasised – would be expected to), and economists seem often to weight most heavily income measures (undoubtedly higher than half a century ago), available technology, and life expectancy.   But these results suggest that to people around the world the answer is not clear cut.  Perhaps in some cases those negative answers involve people just looking at the past with nostalgic rose-tinted glasses, but the diversity of results across countries suggests something more is at work than that.