Pining for the past: Perceptions of life then and now

We’re living in unprecedented times, said everyone, ever. When questioning a family member recently about whether they think life is better now than say, thirty years ago, the answer was an unequivocal and resounding, ‘no!’ ‘Why?’ I enquired.

Here are some of the reasons given; more people, the world is more complicated now what with the internet and mobile phones and trying to pay your bills online. Everything is expensive, there is more pressure to be successful at, well, everything. It was hard not to nod in agreement but my inner bullshit-o-meter was twitching and, while I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, something just didn’t feel right about the claim that the world is truly a worse place now than it was in the recent past. Sure, not many would argue that it is worse today than one hundred years ago, or even seventy during the time of the second world war, but could a comparison to more recent times be made which shows objectively how quality of life has changed?

Is New Zealand getting worse?

Let me start out by saying that the answer is maybe. There are several challenges which probably can’t be solved largely due to the very humanised aspect of the question. The first challenge is to define what quality of life means and which metrics to use to measure it, certainly not all would agree on each metric. Some universality needs to be applied but there is no definite measure of quality of life, rather an aggregated idea of it can be achieved by looking at a few different indicators. Secondly, it’s just too subjective to be able to quantify effectively. I can show you many stats and charts, and I will, of how life is better now than it was in the recent or distant past, but if you personally feel that the world is not a better place now than it used to be, then no amount of objective information is going to change that as your reasons are not based on objectivity but your own subjective world view. What I do hope to do though, is to provide you with some food for thought which may at least make you think that maybe things aren’t really as bad as they seem. That little bit of optimism may help tomorrow be better so we can begin to avoid a self fulfilling prophecy of pessimism.

So here’s the context, I’ve looked at changes in what I think are several good indicators of quality of life in New Zealand spanning a period beginning in the latter part of the 20th century until recently. The two key areas I’ve considered are economic and health with individual metrics as follows:

  • Disposable income, hourly rate and average weekly earnings
  • Consumer price index as a percentage change year on year and in real numbers using 2017 as a base year
  • Food prices
  • House prices
  • Life expectancy
  • Suicide rates
  • Cancer rates
  • Heart disease rates
  • Hospital waiting times

I’ve chosen this list as the data is relatively simple to obtain, but also as money and health are, in my opinion, the two key drivers of quality of life. Money begets prosperity which includes housing, disposable income to spend on entertainment and things other than bills. Health goes without saying, an unhealthy population is unlikely to be a happy one. Let’s dive into the data.

Inflation, CPI and wages

Inflation is about as sure a thing as death and taxes, over time the value of money decreases therefore we need more of it to do the same things. It may go up and down quarter by quarter but the general trend is upwards. It is fair to say that when inflation is high, the price of consumer items is increasing faster than wage rates to compensate, reducing perceived and likely actual quality of life. Using this logic, if we could enquire as to how those people rated life now (being the present at that time) to life in the past, it is likely they would say life used to better simply because financial hardships have made it more difficult, a valid opinion given what we know now in the context of history were high levels of inflation. But, inflation does ease and wage rates do steadily increase to compensate, eventually catching up until a balanced disposable income is restored. The 1970’s and 80’s for instance show the highest levels of inflation in recent history with the average rate of inflation rising from 9.1% between 1970-74, to 13.9% in the late 70’s and exceeding 10% until 1990. Since then inflation in New Zealand has never exceeded 4%, averaging just 2% since 1990.

5c8c645ed0fe37c70d9119202f5cad20

CPI % change

During the same period disposable income and average wages have increased steadily from $600 a week in 2000, to over $1100 in 2017 when adjusted for inflation. The minimum wage has also increased steadily averaging an increase of 4% per year, double the average increase in inflation. (The blue bars represent average weekly earnings, the orange line is disposable income in thousands of NZ dollars).

Wages and disposable income.png

Min wage.png

The cost of food

Consumer buying power covers a wide range of products but taking food as one example, the rate of price increases has been declining. During the 1970’s food prices increased by an average of 1% per quarter, by 2000 that rate had dropped to 0.3% and today food increases by less than a tenth of a percent per quarter. This equates to food prices more than doubling during the 1970’s and 80’s while during the 2000’s they increased by 37.2% and since 2010, prices have increased by just 8.2%. In expenditure terms, in 1974 2.9% of spending went to fruit and vegetables, today that figure is 2%.

Food prices.png

The housing market

The housing market features heavily in the news cycle and there is no question that prices have been rising in recent times, with the Reserve Bank noting adjusted prices have tripled since 1950. David Chaston does call for some perspective, noting that when adjusted for inflation, rising house prices are not as dramatic or even as unprecedented as one might think.

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 3.03.05 PM.png

The average consumer today spends around 26% of their income on their mortgage and 9% on rent, in 1974 kiwi’s spent just 3% on rent. If you needed a further indicator, the ratio of income to house prices hasn’t been moving in a positive direction.

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 2.56.10 PM

Life expectancy

But it is not all bad news, life expectancy has shifted dramatically; in 1950 a man could be expected to live until the age of 67, by 1980 this had increased slightly to 70. However, by 2010 average male life expectancy in New Zealand was 79. Women follow a similar trend of increasing longevity, typically outliving men, however the gap has been closing from around 6 years, prior to 2000, to just 2 years today.

Prevalence of cancer

We all know someone who has dealt with cancer, if not directly ourself. It seems that cancer is more prevalent today than it was in earlier times, but is that really the case? In 1950 cancerous tumours were present in 186 of every 100,000 members of the New Zealand population. By 1965 this had increased to 200, in 1980 it was 285, peaking in 1995 at 369. Since then the rate of cancer has declined slightly with the average rate since 2005 around 340 per 100,000 people. It is possible that the large increase prior to 1995 was due to the introduction of better detection methods and techniques, so many tumour cases may have gone unreported for the years prior to 1990. Additionally, as the population ages cancer becomes more prevalent which accounts for much of the overall increase over time. Cancer is the leading cause of death among New Zealanders however, with some 9,615 cancer related deaths reported in 2015, but it is is worth nothing that the highest proportion of these deaths (18.7%) were due to lung cancers. So yes, cancer is a problem in New Zealand, but it appears that cancer rates in general are not increasing among the New Zealand population for reasons other than lifestyle and ageing.

cancer rates revised.png

Prevalence of heart disease

Cardiovascular disease is the second most common cause of death among kiwi men, but thankfully these rates have also be on the decline since the early 80’s. In 1983, CVD was listed as the caused of death in 295 of every 100,000 men. By 1995 this rate had dropped to 190 and in 2010 was a third of the 1983 level at 100. Again, this reduction can likely be explained by improved medical techniques and procedures with various medications and surgical procedures extending life spans. Incidentally, cancer mortality rates show similar although less dramatic improvements.

Surgery waiting times

None of this may seem that surprising, but lets look at hospital waitlist times as a gauge of whether quality of life has increased or decreased. Unfortunately, I can only find data since 2003 and it is in no way exhaustive, but surprisingly the trend has been positive. In 2003 the average waiting time for a select number of surgical procedures (cataract surgery, hip replacements, coronary bypass surgery to name a few) in a public hospital was 147 days. By 2015 this had dropped to 46 days. Surgery wait times are highly charged in political circles and often surrounded by murky data and questionable accounting, thus I would take this metric with a grain of salt, but there are arguments to be made on both sides. The availability of advanced surgical techniques and access to high quality health care in New Zealand is certainly not in question, there are plenty of worse places to live by most standards.

Hospital waiting time.png

Suicide rates

Finally, we come to suicide statistics. It is no secret that New Zealand has an unenviable boast of the highest rate of youth suicide in the world at 15.6 deaths per 100,000 people, but the age normalised rate of 12.3, is the same as France and South Africa, tied for 53rd place. In 1996 the average was 14.7, peaking at 15.1 in 1995, since then the all age rate o f suicide has been declining.

suicide

Conversely, youth suicide rates have risen dramatically since the 1970’s with the rate nearly tripling between 1975 and 1995. The rate has varied between 15 and 25 per 100,000 people since the early 2000’s. While the overall trend is steady, this is no reason to not approach this issue with concern.

It certainly raises the question, is there a correlation between perceived life satisfaction and suicide risk among young people and people of all ages? Intuitively, suicide rates should reflect the success of a society, whereby a variety of indicators demonstrate an improvement in living conditions and overall societal well-being. As has been shown, New Zealand has done very well by most measures, so why all the suicides?

Counter arguments – Child poverty 

I won’t attempt to answer that question in this article, but I will finish my brief statistical review by looking at two counter arguments, child poverty and pollution. Poverty has been on the decline globally for decades, 200 years ago 94 out of every 100 people around the world were living in extreme poverty, today that number has fallen to just 10. Famines are virtually non-existent today, access to basic medical care and clean water has become widespread. But poverty has not been entirely eliminated, perhaps it never will be.

When talking about poverty, it is important to take a perspectival view, poverty in sub Saharan Africa is quite a different type of poverty to that of South Auckland for instance. Nevertheless, as argued by Jonathan Boston, it is still a measure of children who lack many basic necessities such as rain coats, or regular servings of fresh fruit and vegetables. In this metric, New Zealand has not been making consistent progress with current child poverty rates double those of the 1980’s. Child poverty tends to follow changes to the welfare system so it is very much a political issue, but it shouldn’t be.

Pollution

On pollution, virtually all of the people I speak to about this topic raise pollution as a key contributor to why they think the past was better than the present, and generally they are correct. The Insurance Council of New Zealand takes a great interest in the frequency and severity of weather events and published statistics which show the average rate of severe weather events has increased from less than 2 per year during the 1980’s to over 5 per year today.

New Zealand has long been an agricultural society but unfortunately that has not done our ecosystem any favours. The population of cows now exceeds six million which has placed a tremendous burden on waterways with nitrate-nitrogen levels in water worsening in 61% of measured pastoral waterways (thats a bad thing). Water quality monitoring stations located around the country show consistently high e-coli levels which make these rivers unsafe for swimming. However, it is not all bad news as New Zealand has been taking active steps to reduce water pollution with the introduction of a nationwide freshwater policy reform in 2014. It is a complex topic which I recommend you make your own judgement on.

New Zealand’s level of  greenhouse gas emissions per capita is the fifth highest of OECD countries with gross emissions increasing by 19.6% since 1990, over half of which come from agriculture. Fortunately, emissions have been declining since 2016 but as much of our these are methane and nitrous oxide, which have a greater warming effect than CO2, we have further challenges ahead.

Personal car emissions make up 17% of the balance which is not helped by a large number of vehicles on the roads, many of which are over 10 years old with relatively high emission levels. This can be attributed to our lack of widespread and efficient public transport systems and low density and dispersed urban development. Ironically, the excess of space New Zealanders are fortunate to have in their towns and cities is a contributor to climate change, at least in the present paradigm of fossil fuel based engines powering most vehicles. Additionally, the tax and incentive system favours diesel powered vehicles which produce more emissions than their petroleum counterparts, so politics and economics are playing a role. On the plus side, some 80% of New Zealand’s power generation comes from renewable resources, however this does make reducing emissions a challenge as changes need to take place at both the industrial and individual level.

lake-matheson.jpg

So well done if you’ve made it this far, I hope you will agree that by and large, things have been getting better in New Zealand according to several measures of quality of life. But herein lies the paradox, as life gets better, people generally tend to think it was better in the past. Now we explore some of the psychology behind why this might be the case and I hope to leave you with at least some optimism for the future.

What does everyone else think?

I ran a survey which asked three simple questions:

  • Do you think the past in New Zealand was better than it is today?
  • Do you think the past was better than it is today for the the world in general?
  • Do you think things will get better in the future?

The results correlated nicely with many similar and more in depth studies that have been conducted around the world. The jury is out, slightly more than half of respondents thought life was better in the past in New Zealand, just under half think it is better now. There was more consensus among those who thought the world is a better place now than in the past with only 36% reporting the past to be better. Sadly, only 35% felt the future would be better, under a third were hopeful with the remaining 35% expressing uncertainty. (Most interesting was the division of opinion according to age group cohort, but that’s a conversation for another day).

I also asked for some of the reasons why the world and New Zealand is not the utopia it was in the past. A common response was increased pollution today, the pace of life is faster, people have to work harder, life is not so simple and technology has been detrimental to us socially. Some even feel we are heading for global political cataclysm and war, again. As I stated at the beginning of the article, the exploration of a few metrics doesn’t respond to subjective views of life becoming more complicated and fast paced. But, it is worth considering the cost benefit of progress; with the rise of technology we today enjoy unprecedented freedom to travel, communicate and gain knowledge of the world. Undoubtedly, this has caused its own share of problems, but the opportunities that abound in the world today far outstrip those of the recent past. Is that enough to make the present better? What do you think?

The psychology behind our attitudes to the past

Despite all of the statistics, lets face it, graphs are meaningless to the individual affected by suicide, cancer, the early death of a loved one, an excessively long time on a hospital waiting list or the loss of a favourite waterhole. But, it is not just the case that some people get the short end of the contingent stick of life, we are also the unwitting victims of our psychology, and the proverbial wool is being pulled over our eyes by, well, ourselves.

The notion of looking fondly on the past is known as the ‘reminiscence bump‘ and it increases with age. In a study of over 70 year olds, most recalled the best events of their lives occurred between the ages of 10 and 30. The years in between, the bulk of their adult lives go unremarked. In addition, as people age they tend to mellow, exhibiting the so called ‘positivity effect‘ as negative emotions become fewer. People begin to let go of old grudges and forget the hard times to reminisce on those bygone days when everything was fine and dandy. The reality is though, life was tough then for just as manifold reasons as it is today, albeit for slightly different ones. So, rather than taking an objective view of reality and the changing fortunes of humanity, we tend to bias our thinking with nostalgia for the good old days.

This feeds into the wider concept of remembering the past as being better than it really was and that the future is bleak, a cognitive bias known as declinism. The old saying, there is nothing new under the sun, can easily be applied here. Declinism has been a feature of society for millennia with forecasts of doom beginning in the old testament of the Bible, if not earlier. Declinism can also leverage off a general negativity bias, in contrast to the positivity effect, which suggests that people tend to hold on to negative experiences which then influence their outlook on life and the future. The danger of such thinking is that a negative outlook becomes a self fulfilling prophecy with depression a potentially clinical outcome.

But it is not all internal, a key contributor to our pessimism is fed to us in a steady diet of bad news stories via myriad mainstream and social media channels, from television to newspapers (do they still exist?) and the internet. The media is the great purveyor of bad news and it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a rosy disposition whilst confronted by an endless parade of Chicken Little’s.

From Trump and North Korea, to the global war on terror, drugs, homophobia, xenophobia, meat eaters and tribalism, to cancer, suicide and climate change, its depressing just thinking about all of the ways we are being depressed. Part of the reason for this is economic; we are the victims of our rubber necking tendencies, but it is also a question of perspective. Bad news stories tend to appear suddenly, capturing our attention, positive developments, however, generally occur at much slower rates. When supported by the availability heuristic, we tend to remember the negative events we see more frequently and thus have an unbalanced and thus negative perspective of the world. It is only when stepping back and looking at the big picture that a more accurate, positive trend can be observed in almost every measure of progress we can think of.

Good things take time, bad things just happen

We can’t just ‘fix’ cancer. We are fixing it, but it is taking a bloody long time and many more will die before we have it sorted. You could say this about many things; slowly but surely gifted scientists and professionals are devoting their lives to solving some of the world’s greatest problems. But short of a few breakthroughs here and there, most of which will go largely unnoticed by the general population, progress is slow and steady, the culmination of the collective research and intellect of many generations. Take Norman Borlaug for instance; who? A Nobel prize winner credited with starting the ‘green revolution’ that saved at least a billion people from starvation; who indeed. It’s all very well to feel the past was a better place, the truth is we don’t have all of the information to make such a decision, but between our subversive minds and the negatively biased information we are constantly bombarded with, it is hardly our fault.

Escape from a narrow world view

I offer another potential cognitive bias which could prop up the declinism we seem to be suffering from, the ‘small town mentality’. There is a famous kiwi anthem sung by the iconic Fred Dagg, called ‘we don’t know how lucky we are‘. It is easy to become victim of a way of thinking which is not enriched by experiences of the outside world. It is one thing to watch the evening news but quite another to experience the world directly and over time. It is a cliche to say that when I occasionally return home to ‘en zed’, that I truly realise how good we have it there. So there is a comparison to be made, between the past as we remember it in New Zealand (or where ever you grew up as the principle is pretty universal for developed countries) and how it was elsewhere around the world. It is fair enough to feel that life has declined on a local level, even though it has improved for the world in general, but I hope this piece offers encouragement to not get caught up in a narrow worldview and to see the positives of human progress. Pessimism may come naturally, but so does the human ability to strive.

Fred had it about right I reckon, we really don’t know how lucky we are.

________________________________

The inspiration for this article comes from a conversation that has been going on for some time in mainstream academic circles highlighted by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker in his new book ‘Enlightenment Now‘. If you want to take a much deeper dive into this subject, I recommend you give it a read. 

Caveat, I am not a statistician so I would not recommend quoting the stats I have listed directly, check the links and make your own judgements. 

Acknowledgements to the participants of the survey mentioned in this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s