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- Has life gotten better?: the post-industrial era
By Holden Karnofsky 12 min read

Has life gotten better?: the post-industrial era

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This post will introduce my basic approach to asking the question "Has life gotten better?" and apply it to the easiest-to-assess period: the industrial era of the last few hundred years.

My conclusion for this period is quite in line with that of Enlightenment Now:1 life has gotten better, for humans (not for animals), especially for countries that are now considered "developed" (including the US and most of Europe).

Future posts will discuss trends in quality of life from longer ago. This image illustrates how this post fits into the full "Has Life Gotten Better?" series:

(Reading this post isn't necessary for reading the rest of the series.)

The basic approach

First, as far as I'm aware, there's no "official" or academic review for how quality of life has evolved for the average person over the course of human history. To get a good guess at the answer to "has life gotten better?", it's necessary to assemble evidence and arguments oneself (especially when talking about earlier time periods; there are a number of books about how quality of life has evolved over the last couple hundred years).

My attempt to answer this question has generally focused on systematically collected data. This means, essentially, that someone applied one consistent set of rules to scoring different periods of time on some metric. I often draw on Our World in Data, which seems to aspire to collect and present as much of this sort of data as possible, and tends to be very clear and detailed about where its data is coming from.

When asking "Has life gotten better?", there is lots of evidence you could consider that doesn't fit this description. You could pore over depictions of different eras written by historians; you could review journals and diaries; you could reason about what life probably was like based on e.g. intuitions about how TV and the Internet make you feel today. My problem with this kind of analysis is that:

  • It leaves a huge amount of room for interpretation. I expect it to be heavily colored by the pre-existing worldview and emotional orientation of the person doing it (something that is unavoidable to an extent, but seems especially rough for this kind of analysis).
  • I think the amount of variety and richness in past people's lives is beyond our ability to really understand and imagine it. I'm worried about romanticizing or demonizing past eras based on thin clues here and there.
  • I think in order to really feel confident that we were interpreting the clues we have reasonably - and building a picture of the past anywhere near rich enough to compare with our picture of the present - one would need to spend years (maybe lifetimes) just to get a good picture of some ~20-year period in some particular geography.

Focusing on systematic data leaves out a lot - in fact, for most eras it leaves out some of the most fundamentally important questions, like "How happy were people?" and "How was mental health?" But I can gather and look at all of the data that's relevant and available, and readers can check my work, and we can know that we're all looking at the same non-cherry-picked sample of evidence, and trying to make an uncertain best guess based on what we know (which is of course subject to change if more information comes in).

To date, I haven't seen any other analysis that seems to give a strong case against the basic conclusion I've arrived at this way.

What does it mean for human life to get "better" or "worse?"

I didn't try to reduce quality of life to "happiness" or something like that, for a number of reasons, primarily that (a) this would've required taking controversial philosophical stands;2 (b) data on "happiness" is generally very limited (especially when looking over longer periods of time), and I wanted to be able to draw on as much data as possible.

Instead, I made a list of a number of things that seem relevant for quality of life, and are at least potentially "measurable" by systematic data (at least to some degree).

Here's my list, which I made by brainstorming while reviewing a few sources for inspiration:3

Questions that are particularly amenable to measurement

  • Poverty. How common is extreme poverty, e.g., near- or below-subsistence standards of living? (In practice, I often find hunger and health the best way to get at this when data is sparse.)
  • Hunger. How common is hunger/undernourishment?
  • Health. How good is physical/medical health, e.g., how common are debilitating diseases and how long is life expectancy?
  • Violence. How common is violence, particularly deaths from violence (which tend to be particularly measurable and amenable to rich data sets)?

Questions that are somewhat amenable to measurement

  • Mental health. How good is mental health, e.g., how common are various mental illnesses and disabilities?
  • Substance abuse and addiction. How common are these issues?
  • Discrimination. How severe are formal and informal racism, sexism and other forms of unjust discrimination?
  • Treatment of children. How common is child abuse (both severe and moderate, where the latter might refer to heavy child labor and general disregard for children's welfare)?
  • Time usage. How much time do people spend doing particularly unpleasant things, vs. things they enjoy?
  • Self-assessed well-being. How good is self-assessed well-being and happiness?
  • Education and literacy. How educated and/or literate is the population?
  • Friendship and community. Do people have friendship and community, or are they lonely?

Questions that seem very difficult to get systematic data on as of today

  • Freedom. How common is slavery, and more broadly, to what extent do people have self-determination?
  • Relationship quality. How good are people's relationships with their spouses, children, family and friends?
  • Job satisfaction. How much do people enjoy their jobs and find them meaningful?
  • Meaning and fulfillment. To what extent do people feel their lives are meaningful overall? To what extent do they feel fulfilled (or, to the extent this is distinct, to what extent are they fulfilled)?

Assessing the last couple hundred years

I went through all the charts on Our World in Data, flagging the ones that seemed most useful for getting a handle on how the above things have changed over time (ideally long periods of time). (I also included some comparisons between richer and poorer countries, and would generally assume the world has become more like richer countries over time.) My list of relevant charts, with start dates, is here. After doing this, I went through Enlightenment Now for things I may have missed; this resulted in adding two more charts from Our World in Data and a couple of other notes to the summary table below.4

Property Trend
Poverty: impressive, consistent improvement Seems robustly down worldwide since 1820; I recommend the full OWiD page, which examines this from many angles.
Hunger: impressive, consistent improvement Human height (a proxy for nutrition) up worldwide since 1896 (flat before 1800, and gains are slowing down). See OWiD's page on human height. Caloric supply up since 1800. Famine deaths down since 1860. Undernourishment (defined via calorie consumption) down since 1970
Health (physical): impressive, consistent improvement Child mortality down worldwide since 1800 (though flat before then) and lower in richer countries; maternal mortality down since 1870 and lower in richer countries; life expectancy up worldwide since 1870 and higher in richer countries; cancer trends mixed since 1930 (US); alcohol consumption down since 1890 (data only available for richer countries); obesity up since 1975. (Note that I'm generally listing everything, not just things that support my bottom line, e.g. obesity is an exception to the overall picture of improvement)
Violence: improvement with caveats (to come in a later post) Western Europe homicide rates down since 1300; frequency of "Great Power war" down since 1700s (and flat for ~200 years prior); deaths from UK military conflicts seem down since 1450 (harder to say before that); measures of military expenditure and personnel seem roughly flat, with spikes, since 1700 in the UK and the early 1800s elsewhere (link 1, link 2)
Mental health: limited data, looks mostly flat Suicide rates mostly unchanged (though not steady) since 1950 (and since 1860-1900 according to Enlightenment Now Figure 18-3); no clear trends (though it's hard to tell from the map format) since 1990 in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, depression; eating disorders seem to have risen somewhat
Substance abuse and addiction: up since 1990, no data before then Deaths from substance use disorders up since 1990; premature deaths from illicit drug use up since 1990; US drug overdose death rates up since 1999
Discrimination: improvement Female:male schooling ratios up since 1870; female labor force participation up since 1890 (data from richer countries); Gender Equality Index up since 1950; gender pay gap down since 1970 (but higher in richer countries); # countries where homosexuality is legal up since 1791. Also see additional OECD charts on gender equality since 1900.

OWiD doesn't include systematic data on prevalence of slavery and racially discriminatory law or colonial rule, but it seems clear that these would show improvement since at least the mid-1800s as well.

Treatment of children: spotty data implies improvement UK child labor down since 1860; child employment lower in richer countries; US bullying down since 1993
Time usage: spotty data implies improvement Annual working hours down since 1870 (data from richer countries only) and lower in richer countries. (Some additional data in Enlightenment Now chapter 17, particularly the decline in time spent in housework starting around 1900 and the quote in this footnote.5)
Self-assessed well-being: spotty data implies improvement European life satisfaction up since 1973; life satisfaction higher in richer countries
Education and literacy: impressive, consistent improvement Worldwide share of the population with basic education up worldwide since 1820; primary school enrollment up since 1820; literacy up worldwide since 1800 (and in the UK and Netherlands since 1475); basic numeracy up since 1500 (data from richer countries)
Friendship and community: spotty data mildly suggests improvement or at least not worsening Richer-country populations report having more people they can count on; USA high-school loneliness down since 1977; one-person households more common since 1500 (Europe, UK, US; I included this because it could be interpreted as negative, though that isn't my guess). (Also see quote from Enlightenment Now in footnote.6)
Freedom: spotty data suggests improvement Democracies up, autocracies down since 1900; human rights scores up since 1946
Romantic relationship quality: unknown Marriage rates down since 1920 (US) and 1960 (some other countries); divorce rates variable, mostly up since 1970 (falling in the US since 1980)
Job satisfaction: unknown I haven't found good data series on this
Meaning and fulfillment: unknown I haven't found good data series on this as distinct from life satisfaction (listed above)
Note that data is often only available for a limited # of countries. I generally tried to note when a trend is only based on data from richer countries, and when it seems clear that a trend is "worldwide"; when I don't specify either, it means the trend is based on data from a limited set of countries, but those countries are from a mix of regions and income levels, or there's other reason to guess the trend is fairly broad.

Personally, I would guess that the last three rows - particularly romantic relationship quality and job satisfaction - would also show improvement, at least in richer countries, if we had good data on them.

  • This is mostly based on the fact that I think the ability to search out a "good fit" has dramatically improved (from a pretty low starting point of very little choice) for job searches, dating, and even in some sense meaning and fulfillment (in that it's gotten easier to choose between different candidate "life missions" - religions, or political goals, or just communities or topics, to find one that feels fulfilling and find others who share it).
  • It's also somewhat based on informal impressions (which I admit are unreliable) from e.g. books and TV shows (for example, people seem to treat their romantic partners as more of a burden in older TV shows).
  • I'm aware of the theory that having more choice can make matters worse, but my default is that this is usually outweighed by the benefits of choice, at least when one is starting off from a pretty low level of being able to consider and choose between multiple options.

I expect others have different impressions. But I think it's telling that nearly everything we can measure seems to have improved (and when not, stayed flat) over the last couple hundred years.

With that in mind, I tend to default to interpreting most statements like "Alienation, depression, loss of meaning, etc. are modern-world-specific phenomena" as more-or-less just "grass is greener" thinking. I think any given past era probably had lots of people struggling with a lack of meaning, fulfillment, purpose, and/or good relationships, even if their community was pressuring them to go along with some official consensus that X or Y is meaningful and fulfilling.

(The flatness of suicide rates over time seems indicative here.)

For animals, it's not the same story

Unfortunately, the chart for average animal quality of life probably looks very different from the human one; for example, the rise of factory farming in the 20th and 21st centuries is a massive negative development. I consider this a major complicating point for the narrative about life getting better over this period.

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Footnotes

  1. See part II (pages 37-347). There is a nice summary at the beginning of Chapter 20 (pages 322-326), and simply looking at the charts and tables can give a nice feel for the overall picture as well. 

  2. See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on three broad competing theories of well-being (how good a person's life is). "Hedonism" says that a person's well-being is defined entirely by the feelings (e.g., pleasure and pain) they experience; "desire theories" say that well-being is about whether a person's desires/preferences are fulfilled; "objective list theories" are willing to say that a person's well-being can depend on certain facts about their life, such as whether they have good relationships and achieve understanding of the world, even if the person themselves doesn't care about these things or enjoy them. I think each of these is unsatisfactory on its own: I can imagine pleasurable lives that I wouldn't say are well-lived, and lives with full desire fulfillment that I wouldn't say are well-lived, but I also think it's strange to define well-being entirely using the "objective list" method. So I am inclined to judge well-being simply by a mix of all three, which supports my approach of looking at lots of different things that intuitively seem important for quality of life. 

  3. Our World in Data, Enlightenment Now, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, work I had previously done looking for themes in Utopian literature. 

  4. I have generally avoided leaning on Enlightenment Now, not because I don't agree with the picture it paints - I do - but because I would sympathize with a reader who is worried that its selection of charts is cherry-picked.

    But here I'll note a number of useful-seeming charts that are not covered by the Our World in Data figures in my table: figures 7-2 (stunting since 1966); 12-3, 12-4, 12-6, 12-8, 12-9 (deaths from accidents and other non-homicide violence); 14-3 and 14-4 (death penalty abolitions, execution deaths); 15-6 (liberal values across time and generations, going back to people born in the early 1900s); a number of charts on time use in chapter 17; 18-1 (a nice presentation of happiness data); 18-2 (loneliness data that includes college students, not just high school); 18-3 (suicide going back to 1860-1900). 

  5. "Indeed, over the course of the 20th century, typical American parents spent more time, not less, with their children.24 In 1924, only 45 percent of mothers spent two or more hours a day with their children (7 percent spent no time with them), and only 60 percent of fathers spent at least an hour a day with them. By 1999, the proportions had risen to 71 and 83 percent.25 In fact, single and working mothers today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home married mothers did in 1965." 

  6. "In Still Connected (2011), the sociologist Claude Fischer reviewed forty years of surveys that asked people about their social relationships. 'The most striking thing about the data,' he noted, 'is how consistent Americans’ ties to family and friends were between the 1970s and 2000s. We rarely find differences of more than a handful of percentage points either way that might describe lasting alterations in behavior with lasting personal consequences—yes, Americans entertained less at home and did more phone calling and emailing, but they did not change much on the fundamentals.'"