Pining for the past: Perceptions of life then and now – Part I The Statistics

I originally wrote this blog post in May 2018 but I’ve revisited it in 2019 and split it into two parts. This, the first part, poses the question about how we perceive quality of life and how we can quantify it over time. The second part addresses some of the reasons why we tend to think of the past as being better than the present. 

We’re living in unprecedented times! Said everyone, ever. I asked a family member recently whether they thought life is better now than say, thirty years ago, the answer was unequivocal, a resounding ‘no!’ ‘why?’ I enquired.

Here are some of the reasons given; there are too many people now, the world is more complicated, what with the internet and mobile phones and trying to pay your bills online. Everything is expensive, there is more pressure to be successful, the list went on. It was hard not to nod in agreement but my inner bullshit-o-meter was registering 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. If you want to see why this answer is nuanced, bear with me and I’ll explain. There are several challenges which can’t be solved elegantly largely due to the very subjective nature of the question. The first challenge is to define what quality of life means, the second, which metrics can be used to measure it. Certainly not all would agree on each metric but some universality needs to be applied.  There can be no definite measure of quality of life, rather an aggregate idea of it can be achieved by looking at a few different indicators. Thirdly, it’s just too subjective to be able to quantify effectively. I will show you many stats and charts of how life is better now than it was in the recent 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 and the biases inherent to it. Despite these complexities, what I hope to do is provide some food for thought which may at least show you that things aren’t really as bad as they seem. That little bit of optimism may help tomorrow be better than today 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.

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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 calls for perspective, noting that when adjusted for inflation, rising house prices are not as dramatic or even as unprecedented as one might think.

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But, that may be using the time honoured tactic of manipulating statistics to present a picture you want the world to see. Statistics New Zealand paints a more sobering picture of cost of living showing how the average consumer today spends around 26% of every $100 of their income on their mortgage and 9% on rent, compared to 1974 when kiwi’s spent just 3% on rent. If you need another indicator of this negative trend, the ratio of income to house prices hasn’t been moving in a positive direction either. The chart below shows the change in median house prices compared to median household income, for instance in 2015 the median house price in New Zealand was over 5 times the median annual income, today it is well over 6 times.

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 and by 2010 average male life expectancy in New Zealand was 79. Women follow a similar trend of increasing longevity and they typically outlive men. However the gap has been closing from around 6 years, prior to 2000, to just 2 years today.

Prevalence of cancer

If you haven’t been affected by cancer directly, you know someone who has. It seems that cancer is more prevalent today than it was, 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 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 which are highly correlated with smoking. 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 an ageing population.

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 let’s look at hospital waitlist times as a measure 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 the 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 of 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 (happiness) and suicide risk among young people or 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.

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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. In part two I 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 in part three.

 

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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.

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