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?

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. For some, it was a “spring of hope” while, for others, it was a “winter of despair”.

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 bullying (both online and offline) was the main problem, followed by pressure to fit in socially.

The case for it being the best of times to be alive 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.

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. It really is a very tough time to be young.

But another strong argument is that paradox is a profound truth. The big measures of life are wonderful. We should be happy. But the anxiety we have 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?

Activities

  1. In what year would you like to have been born? List three reasons why (even if you choose the year you were actually born).

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

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 writers, who lived 1812-1870, much loved for his great contribution to classic English literature and social change His epic stories, vivid characters and detailed depiction of Victorian life are unforgettable.
Action for Children
A leading British children’s charity helping vulnerable children and young people, and their families, throughout the UK.
Steven Pinker
Professor at Harvard University. He does research on language and how we understand; writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of 10 books.
Paradox
A statement that seems to contradict itself. So, we can be both happy and unhappy.

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