Our Lives Are Far Better than those of Our Ancestors

Most all of our ancestors lived in poverty and often faced starvation, incurable diseases, infant mortality, and short life expectancies, even of adults. Today, even the poorest American families enjoy a roof over their heads, a solid floor under their feet, running water, a flush toilet, and electricity. Those were all unimaginable luxuries, far beyond the dreams of our ancestors, only a few generations ago.

Don Boudreaux of MRUniversity (an online educational service not affiliated with any traditional college or university) explores the question economists have been asking since the era of Adam Smith: what creates wealth? On a timeline of human history, the recent rise in standards of living resembles a hockey stick, flatlining for all of human history and then skyrocketing in just the last few centuries.

Without specialization and trade, our ancient ancestors only consumed what they could make themselves. Today, the majority of us are employed at producing just one or a very few products or services and then we all share the benefits of today’s economy.

You can view Don Boudreaux’s video at http://youtu.be/t9FSnvtcEbg or in the video player below:

9 Comments

Again, another “espert” who indicates that adult life expectancy was only 30 years before the industrial evolution. This is totally inaccurate. It is the infant mortality that creates that false conclusion. Babies and children kept the AVERAGE life expectancy low. Now that infants and children die at one 20th the rate before age 5, the AVERAGE life expectancy has been effected. In other words, if we calculate the LIFE EXPECTANCY OF A PERSON WHO REACHED THE AGE OF 5, the adult would have been likely to live to age 70 before the industrial revolution. Medicine as helped babies and children more that adults, to live longer. But we adults lived long lives before the industrial revolution. This is reflected in the census taken every 10 years, and it shows the difference. We just like to think we live much longer, only the AVERAGE has increased. Adult expected life expectancy is still between 70-75 and not much higher. So tired of explaining this over and over again.

    Thank you for saying this yet again. Hopefully some people will finally think about it.

    Another seemingly unstoppable “statistic” is the “half of all marriages end in divorce” one. No they don’t. What happened was the original article that was written happened to contain the fact that in one particular year there were X marriages and X/2 divorces. Common sense would tell you that the divorces were not from just the brand new marriages, but across the much larger pool of people who had ever been and still were married. And no, they would not have been reduced by half every year prior to this, because the number of divorces, like that of marriages, fluctuates every year.

As Regina says, the correct statistic for comparison is the life expectancy for those who survived infancy. I read somewhere that by this standard, 17th and 18th Century New England, in particular, measured up particularly well. Among the reasons cited for this were that the prevailing rural lifestyle and temperate climate acted to discourage the spread of many of the communicable diseases that were endemic in more southerly latitudes and the old world city slums. Working the farms provided people with lots of healthy exercise in generally clean fresh air, and resulted in a much healthier diet than most Americans consume nowadays. Our family tree is full of men who lived into their 80s and 90s, and women who somehow survived giving birth to a dozen children only to watch half of them die before age 10.

It has also been noted that the first wave of Revolutionary War soldiers tended to be mature men in their 30s and 40s, not the twenty-somethings who became prominent with the later professionalization of the American army. So much for an average life expectancy of 30.

Granted the developed world could never have become what it is today without urbanization and division of labor, but industrialization brought with it a whole host of new problems we are still seeking to solve.

The “hockey stick” reference is entirely due to the exploitation of fossil fuel – what happens when energy gets increasingly precious? Can you spell “resource conflict”? – it’s already happening all over the globe and it is only going to get worse. You need to do some reading in other areas besides genealogy, Dick.

Two other things to consider. The industrial revolution was first powered by replaceable, sustainable water and wood, then quickly shifted to fossil fuels. That stored, irreplaceable energy source provided a big part of the excess value recent generations have been consuming. The second is that a small portion of the free time this industrial revolution provided has been invested in additional education and research that has grown like compound interest to contribute as well. Whether in the long term these investments will contribute on to a longer and better quality of life to the average person is still a very open question. The population explosion, global warming and self-destructive tendencies (thermonuclear, chemical and biological weapons) might just put a period to the sentence of human life long before our sun in many more billions of years engulfs and consumes our earth. Enjoy today and use it wisely.

Granted that most people lived beyond 30 if they survived infancy, but I can give numerous examples of those that did not make it to old age. My grandfather’s brother who died at 36 of pneumonia, his sister at 44 of an infection, are the more recent ones.

Dick is very correct when it comes to their standard of living. When I go back to see where some of my ancestors lived, I shudder at the poverty they endured.

    Well, Bobbi — At 36 and 44, both of your grandfather’s siblings still managed to beat the average life expectancy of 30, didn’t they
    But seriously, in my travels I have seen all too many places where the bulk of the people still live in the same impoverished conditions our pre-industrial ancestors faced. Even in our more prosperous portion of the world, more and more homeless people are living on the streets, or in tents and cardboard boxes hidden back in the woods behind the expensive gated communities, in conditions rivaling those documented by Jacob Riis over 100 years ago in “How the Other Half Lives”. I’m not sure I accept the proposition that life has improved all that much for most of the world. For some lucky people like you and me, yes; for everyone, not so much. And even the prosperity you and I have experienced since WWII now seems to be ebbing away, leaving an undertow that is now trying to pull all of us backwards.

“Today, even the poorest American families enjoy a roof over their heads, a solid floor under their feet, running water, a flush toilet, and electricity.”
This statement is totally not true! All you have to do is go downtown in the evenings to see many, many people without a roof over their head. The homeless are a growing concern that should tell us that there is something definitely wrong with our world.

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