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Are Living Conditions Getting Better or Worse?

There is no doubt about the fact that global conditions are changing, but are they changing for the better, or for the worse?

"All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse?" was a question asked by a recent survey. In Sweden, 10% thought that things are getting better, in the US this dropped down to 6%, and in Germany this decreased even further to 4%. In other words, not a lot of people think that the world is getting better.

Have Our Living Conditions Improved or Worsened?

So, what evidence do we need to consider when trying to answer this question? Well, the question is about how the world has changed and, therefore, we need to look at it from a historical perspective. Furthermore, the question is about the world so the answer has got to consider everyone - the answer must take into account the history of global living conditions; the history of everybody.

Below we take a look at how poverty, literacy, health, freedom, and education have changed over the last two centuries.


1. Poverty

To properly see where we are coming from it is imperative that we take a trip far back in time - 30, 40, 50, 60 years is not enough. The reason for this is that if you only consider what the world has looked like during our lives, it is all too easy to make the serious mistake of thinking  that the world is static - the rich, educated and healthy parts of the world are here while the poor, uneducated and unhealthy parts are over there.  To do this, you're falsely concluding that it has and always will be like that.

Go back to a time before our lifetime, and it becomes crystal clear that the world is not static. Rich countries today were very poor in the past and were in fact a lot worse off than the poor countries of today's world.  In fact, to avoid looking at the world in a static way we have to go back 200 years before the period when living conditions changed dramatically.

Poverty, according to researchers, is living with less than $1.90 per day. This figure takes into account non-monetary forms of income and is adjusted for different price levels in different countries and inflation.

The chart below shows the figures for the world population living in extreme poverty from the 1820s onwards. As you can see, in 1820, only a small percentage had high standards of living, while nearly everyone else lived in conditions that would be considered as extreme poverty today. Since then, the percentage of extremely poor people has decreased continuously.  For example, in 1950, 75% of the world was living in extreme poverty; in 1981 it dropped to 44%. Latest research suggests that extreme poverty is now below 10%.

This is pretty impressive considering that the world's population has dramatically increased over the last two centuries. You would have thought that such a population increase would lead to more extreme poverty, but the fact of the matter is that the opposite has happened. In a time of continuous population growth, our world has managed to give prosperity to more people and lift them out of extreme poverty.

2. Literacy

The chart below shows the percentage of the world's population that has been literate over the last 200 years. As you can see, only a tiny elite were able to read and write at the beginning of the 19th century. In fact, in 1820, only 1 person in 10 was literate; in 1930 it was every 1 in 3 and now 85% of the world is literate.  Put in a different way, if you were living in 1800 there would be a 9 in 10 chance that you couldn't read - today, more than 8 out of 10 people are literate.

3. Health

One reason why we might not see progress is because we just aren't aware of how bad the past was. we must take a look at the past in order to see just how much progress we have truly made.

In 1800, the living conditions of our ancestors were so bad that 43% of the world's newborns died before they turned 5. In other words, all over the world, more than every third child died before they reached their 5th birthday.

Nowadays, the child mortality rate is down to 4.3% - 100 times lower than 2 centuries ago. This is thanks to a vast improvement in modern medicine, science, housing, sanitation and diets (made possible through an increase in agricultural productivity and oversea trade).


4. Freedom

In order to get a time perspective of how political freedom has changed over the last two centuries, we can take a look at the chart below which shows the percentage of people living under different types of political regimes.

As you can see, throughout the 19th century, more than a third of the world's population lived under colonial regimes and everyone else lived under autocratic rule. The first expansion of political freedom (from the late 19th up until the time of World War II) was crushed by the rise of authoritarian regimes. However, during the second half of the 20th century, the world has changed dramatically; the Colonial Empires ended, and more and more countries started to turn towards democracy. Now, every second person in the world lives under democratic rule.

5. Education

None of the human race's achievements over the last two centuries would have been achieved without the expansion of education and knowledge.

We can be pretty certain that education is on track to continue improving globally. The reason we can make such a prediction is that the educational composition of today tells us a lot about the education of tomorrow - a literate young boy today will still be a literate man in 2060 and a student with a university degree  now will still be a student with a university degree in the future.

The final chart below shows the projection of the IIASA Institute for the total world population by level of education until 2100. As can be seen, the chart suggests that by 2100, there will  be only a very small percentage of people without formal education, and there will be more than 7 billion people with at least secondary education.


The only possible way to tell the history of everyone is by using statistics, because only then can we get a realistic overview of the global living conditions of the 22 billion people that have lived over the past 200 years. The aforementioned survey shows that people believe that the world is getting worse, but, as the charts have proven, this is clearly not the case.  Overall, the statistics reveal that our global living conditions are improving - slowly, but surely.   

Source: ourworldindata
Photos: depositphotos

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