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[/audioplayer]No one likes being told they’ve never had it so good. When Lord Young of Graffham tried it three years ago, he was quickly forced out of his job as David Cameron’s enterprise adviser. And rightly so, you might think, for it was an affront both to the evidence before our eyes and to our most basic human instinct: that the past was golden and ahead of us lies only misery, penury, falling standards, overcrowding and the on-going destruction of our once green and pleasant land.
This was the (hugely popular) theme of Danny Boyle’s London Olympics opening ceremony: the pastoral idyll of frolicking shepherds violated by the sinister phallic eruptions of the Industrial Revolution’s dark satanic mills.
It’s also the inspiration of the Occupy movement, of economics bestsellers from The Spirit Level to Capital in the 21st Century, of David Willetts’s The Pinch: How The Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and of dozens of impassioned articles by journalists on both left and right lamenting the fate of today’s Doomed Youth.
As the author of several such whinges myself, I wasn’t particularly overjoyed to be asked to speak in a forthcoming Spectator debate in favour of the motion ‘Stop Whining, Young People: You’ve Never had It So Good’. In common with 54 per cent of respondents to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, I thought it was an absolute no-brainer that the kids of today are going to be worse off than their parents’ generation, for any number of obvious reasons.
But as I researched the topic, I found something astonishing. Most of those reasons were false. Strip away instinctive pessimism, miserablist gut feeling and media-indoctrinated false consciousness and what you discover is something amazing and counter-intuitive: on almost every available metric it turns out that the optimists have got it right. Today’s gilded generation is the most blessed that ever lived.
Here are a few facts to help ease you from your state of appalled disbelief.
Work: Over the last generation (ie, 25 years) average pay is up by 62 per cent in real terms — with more holiday entitlement (five weeks instead of four), fewer strikes, and higher employment rate for women. Today’s graduates are finding work at salaries that their parents could only dream about — unless they walked straight into a merchant bank. So we’re all more likely to be working and are better paid and consequently more independent.
Health: Life spans are going up. Between 1960 and 2010 a man’s average life expectancy increased by ten years; a woman’s by eight. Cancer survival rates have improved dramatically (yes, even under ‘our’ sclerotic NHS); HIV is no longer a death sentence; advances in nutrition and health mean that people are getting taller (the average height for British men having increased by four inches over the last century).
Home: Yes, it’s true that the current QE-fuelled asset bubble is driving house prices unsustainably high, but otherwise news on the home front is good. Mortgages have never been cheaper, which more than compensates for higher prices. Outside London, property is more affordable now than a generation ago. Over 90 per cent of households now have central heating (in 1970 it was just a quarter), while fewer than three in 1,000 lack an indoor flushing loo (whereas as recently as 1961, one in seven houses only had outdoor loos; and one quarter didn’t have a bath or shower). We can all afford state-of-the-art TVs and computers too, prices having dropped by 68 per cent over the last nineyears for the former and 77 per cent for the latter.
Travel: We can go further for less and are much more likely to do so. Britons have three times more holidays abroad than they did in the 1980s, and not just on Ryanair and easyJet flights to Lanzarote and Palma, but to destinations which before would have been beyond the reach of all but a privileged few. In 1980, a fare to Johannesburg would have cost a fifth of average earnings. Today, it’s closer to a 50th.
Education: Of course it’s harder for graduates to find jobs — but that’s partly because there are so many more graduates. In the 1960s just one in 20 people went to university; now around half of all young people get to know the joys of freshers’ week, essay crises, late-night kebabs on vomit-spattered pavements and other formative further education experiences.
But just assuming for a moment that I haven’t made this stuff up — and I haven’t, honest — how come we’re constantly hearing otherwise? Well, one reason I’d suggest is that think pieces tend to be written by professional journalists. And if there’s one industry more likely than most to put a pessimistic complexion on things right now, it’s the crumbling fourth estate.
The main explanation, though, I believe, has more to do with our species’ extraordinary inbuilt mix of ingratitude and amnesia which characterises our response to the advances of the capitalist system. Peter Foster — in his excellent new book Why We Bite The Invisible Hand — offers the perfect analogy when he imagines Adam Smith, 18th-century author of The Wealth of Nations, returning today to his native Kirkcaldy.
He pictures Smith’s astonishment at the range of goods and services on offer — ‘from fast food or financial services to a cellphone or a “Unisex Tropical Tan”’ — and his amazement, coming from an era where oatmeal, white bread and potatoes were the staple, at encountering the Large Mega Mac Meal. But what would surprise Smith at least as much, Foster suggests, is the way all the locals at best took these wonders for granted, at worst felt bitter and resentful that more wasn’t being done to improve their lives.
Nowhere is this better exemplified in our own culture than in the way we have so casually absorbed the benefits of internet technology. When I was at university, for example, I had what was at the time considered a pretty enviable record collection of perhaps 50 to 100 albums. My 15-year-old son, however, has access to a selection so vast — perhaps 20 million songs — that back in the 1980s it would have beggared the imagination even of a millionaire, audiophile obsessive collector like Tim Rice.
The reason for this is not that my son’s dad is richer than my dad (au contraire) but simply because of a mobile phone app called Spotify, which anyone can now own, whether they live on Gazillionaire’s Row or whether they’re White Dee from Benefits Street, because the basic version is free.
Free, as so many things are these days — from sophisticated computer games (the kind that you would have paid a small fortune for in the early days of Xbox and would have been unthinkable in the days of Atari) to novels (certainly, all the classics) to specialist magazines to apps that make it easier for you to find a sexual partner (Tinder, Grindr) to funny little devices you never knew you needed but now find indispensible like Shazam, the one which enables you to identify unfamiliar pieces of music.
This widespread outbreak of ‘freeness’ (though, of course, it’s not really free: invariably you’re being exploited some other way, either through advertising or the valuable information you’ve given about yourself) is one of the great overlooked phenomena of modern economics. That’s because, by its nature, it’s not a measured — or indeed measurable — part of GDP.
Yet it’s in this invisible area that by far the most dramatic lifestyle improvements have occurred during the past decades. So much so as to make a nonsense of what we hear from clergymen, Labour politicians and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about the ongoing existence of ‘poverty’ in Britain.
Poverty? Well yes, it’s always going to exist if you define it in relative terms — even if we reach the stage where the haves ride around in Lamborghinis and the have-nots must make do with Porsches. But not, surely, in absolute terms. Not when in Britain we’re already pretty much at the stage where no one is denied the opportunity to enjoy their leisure time with access to culture and entertainment only marginally less sophisticated than that available to Bill Gates.
Or, as Matt Ridley put it in The Rational Optimist, ‘The average British working man in 1957, when Harold Macmillan told him he had “never had it so good”, was earning less in real terms than his modern equivalent could now get in state benefit if unemployed with three children.’ Not just that, but with his television, telephone, car and modern healthcare, that man has access to creature comforts which not even the richest of the 19th-century super-rich such as Cornelius Vanderbilt could ever have hoped to enjoy in their lifetimes.
Of course, I can well understand why so many of us might be predisposed to overlook these realities. First, as Thomas Macaulay rather sourly noted in his History of England (1849), we seem often to be drawn to idealise the past at the expense of the present: ‘It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts, the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers dieted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die on the coast of Guiana. We too shall be outstripped and in our turn envied...’
And secondly, we have the evidence of our own eyes that the world doesn’t always improve. I think, for example, of those sleepy Turkish fishing villages I chilled out in one university summer vacation, which my children’s generation, and every one hereafter, will only get to experience as overdeveloped touristic hell holes virtually indistinguishable from the ones that ruined Spain in the 1970s. That Mediterranean coastline: we’re never going to get it back.
But in broader terms, there’s no getting away from the counter-intuitive truth: no matter which metric you choose — health, longevity, education, earnings and spending power — life continues to get better for more of us than at any time in history. Face it kids, you’ve never had it so good. Now shut up and start showing some gratitude.