Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Was life better in the 1970s?

People from my generation often complain that their parents were better off. They are often quick to dismiss the Internet and smart phones as irrelevant to their well-being.

Were they better off?

  1. Though it has recently peaked, the number of cars per person is higher than it was in the seventies. Current cars are much safer than there were.
  2. In percentage, home ownership was no higher in the seventies, and lower in the sixties than it is today. Pre-1945, hardly anyone in a city owned his home.1. Average retirement age was higher in the 1970s than it is today. That is despite the fact that we have since made forced retirement illegal, and despite the fact that there are far fewer physically demanding jobs. Of course, pre-1945 few people retired and life expectancy was often lower than 65 years.
  3. Air quality has gotten better. Gazoline no longer contains lead.
  4. Far more people attend college, far more people have a college degree than in the 1970s.
  5. Though it has fluctuated quite a bit, unemployment rates in the 1970s and 1980s were not smaller.
  6. Violent crime has greatly diminished. Car accidents have become less frequent and less fatal.

I could go on… On almost every measure that I can imagine, people are better off. I have not even gotten started with the developing world… In the 1970s, all of China was starving. Today, young people in China proudly carry smartphones.

I also disagree strongly that the Internet and modern computer technology is an irrelevance. As a kid, I had access to a handful of science books. Today, kids the same age have an almost embarrassing wealth of choices. As a kid, I watched whatever was on television… Today, I watch Dr. Who together with my boys, at a time of our choosing. Would I go back to live in the 1970s? I would not. Why would you?

There is one thing that people are sure to bring up: inequality. Though the poor have gotten richer, the rich have supposedly gotten richer even faster. I say “supposedly” because people spend little time thinking about wealth is. It is typically left undefined. We use various proxies, but it is hard to grasp what this means in reality. For example, is your health and your education part of your wealth? Are your skills a form of wealth?

If you are gay, a woman or a minority, you were more likely to be discriminated against in the 1970s. How do you factor this into your measure of wealth?

I would argue that most of our wealth is intangible. It is not cars and buildings that make us wealthy… You could destroy every building in the US… and though it would be tragic and create much misery, within twenty years, the country would have recovered much of the lost wealth. We know this from experience: Germany was entirely destroyed following the second world war. Its loss was almost incomprehensible. The country was broken in two. Yet within 15 years, West Germans recovered fully.

In any case, it is undeniable that while technology makes us richer, it also allows one individual to have much greater impact. Without electronic recording, Céline Dion would not be known in every corner of the world. This cut both ways… if you live in a remote location, you are made richer by your access to Céline Dion, but Céline Dion can also benefit from this greater reach. The same logic applies to CEOs.

So it is the case that a great professional singer can earn a lot more than an average one today… whereas the gap was much smaller in the middle ages. Should you be annoyed? You should not since both singers are now better off… (trust me, you do not want to go back to the middle ages)

If you set aside the neo-Marxist terminology (e.g., inequality), what is hidden is an age-old vice: envy.

We hate it when we meet people who are better off than we are. We get distressed when we hear that they might be getting even better off. Some people would give up all of the gains we have made since the 1970s if they could be certain that nobody is richer than they are.

I know that some people would do it because they did. The last century was a massive experiment where half the world adopted socialism: the idea that everyone has to be equal, whatever the cost. It culminated in the Berlin wall: some people sought to escape socialism, and so the defenders of socialism had them shot. Entire families were killed just because they tried to escape.

If you base your entire society on envy, it will be morally crippled.

I submit to you that the same holds at the individual level… if envy is what is driving you… you are morally bankrupt.

Here is a test: if you meet someone you went to school with… and this person has a much nicer car and much nicer house than you do… how do you feel? If you feel bad… is the problem with you or with capitalism?

Further reading: 26 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better.

Further thoughts: If you know that many people feel bad when you show up your big house or expensive sport car… and clearly, many people do… then why do it? It is fair enough to buy expensive shoes to pick up girls, but is it wise to buy the most expensive luxury car just because you can? Why are you posting a picture of your BMW on your Facebook page?