Safer, freer: the best time ever to be alive

Optimist: Steven Pinker (above) argues that, by almost every measure, this is the best of times.

Is this the best of times or the worst of times to be young? Though many might say neither, several recent studies have made a strong case for both extremes. Read on and see what you think.

Are rich countries facing “a crisis of childhood” amid inequality, climate crisis and political division? Or are today’s teenagers lucky to be alive right now — safer, happier and freer than ever before?

Both cases have been made recently. Which one is true?

Or could it be that both are true? After all, when Charles Dickens opened his masterpiece, A Tale Of Two Cities, with what has become one of the most famous lines in literature — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — he wanted to capture two realities.

Writing in 1859, exactly 70 years after the French revolution, Dickens wanted to say that the revolution in Paris turned out to be a “spring of hope” for oppressed civilians while, for the aristocrats and the ancient regime, it was a “winter of despair”, which led to death and destruction.

From the standpoint of today, the most powerful case for it being the worst of times for young people has been made by the UK charity, Action for Children.

Its survey of 5,000 children, parents and grandparents, published this month, found a strong shared perception that modern childhoods are getting worse.

All agreed bullying (both online and offline) was the main problem, followed by pressure to fit in socially. Nine out of 10 children — some as young as 11 — said they worried about “adult” issues. Roughly half said they were anxious about poverty and homelessness, terrorism, inequality and the environment.

The charity said children from all backgrounds were vulnerable and that we were “sleepwalking into a crisis of childhood”.

The case for it being the best of times to be alive — and, therefore, the best time to be young — has been made by many historians and economists over the past three years. One of the most influential is the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

He says we are living in a golden age of human progress, and cites the latest data on lifespan, health, prosperity, peace, safety, freedom, knowledge, human rights, gender equality and intelligence as proof.

For example, two centuries ago, 85% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, that is 10%. By 2030, it could be zero.

Crime is falling fast. The world’s leading criminologists have calculated that, within 30 years, we can cut the global rate of homicide in half.

More than 60% of the world’s population now lives in open societies, the highest percentage ever.

Which case is truer?

Tale of two worlds?

A strong argument is that this is about theory versus reality. In theory, Pinker is right. All the measures of progress are looking good. But real life is not as simple as a set of graphs. The reality is what Action for Children discovered. It really is a very tough time to be young.

But another strong argument is that Dickens had a point: paradox is a profound truth. Pinker’s data is just as real as a set of feelings captured by researchers. The big measures of life are wonderful. We should be happy. But the anxiety we have about issues, both great and small, in our lives is real too. We have a perfect right to feel both happy and sad.

You Decide

  1. Are you having a better life than your parents or carers?
  2. Is anxiety a lifestyle disease?

Activities

  1. In what year would you like to have been born? List three reasons why (even if you choose the year in which you were actually born).
  2. When do you think was the worst time in history to have been young? Again, list three reasons why.

Some People Say...

“I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realisation that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.”

Steven Pinker, Canadian-American psychologist and writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Even if we aren’t necessarily happier, we are richer, healthier, taller, cleverer, longer-lived, safer and freer than ever before.
What do we not know?
Whether most other people who came before us would be only too happy to swap their lives for ours. We can never know this because they aren’t here to tell us. But it is a fascinating topic to think about.

Word Watch

Charles Dickens
One of the greatest of all writers, who lived 1812-1870, much loved for his great contribution to classic English literature, and social reform. He was the quintessential Victorian author. His epic stories, vivid characters and exhaustive depiction of contemporary life are unforgettable.
French revolution
A watershed event in modern European history that began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s, with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens razed and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions, such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system.
Action for Children
A leading British children’s charity committed to helping vulnerable children and young people, and their families, throughout the UK.
Steven Pinker
Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of 10 books.

Subjects

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