We spoke to two expert researchers at Stockholm University to dig a little deeper into the state of the world. Given the conflict in Ukraine, is the future really all doom and gloom?
Turns out, not quite. For example, life expectancy – that most fundamental of quality of life indicators – is on a determinedly upward long-term trajectory as people across the globe live longer and longer.
And it’s not just life expectancy that is confounding our preconceptions. Crime is on a downward spiral, more women are becoming educated and enjoying careers, rates of infant mortality are falling, and population growth is set to plateau. Even extreme poverty – the rate of which has sadly increased by 100 million people during the pandemic – had been plummeting down for decades until Covid-19 intervened.
Once the aftershocks of the pandemic have subsided, rates of extreme poverty will once again build downward momentum. The world, in spite of the current rather worrying geopolitical events as well as the last thrashings of the tail-end of Covid-19, is set to continue to become a better place to live for all its inhabitants.
Crime rates? Going down?
Still, the ever-hungry 24 hours news cycle demands fresh outrage and it’s this, along with the insistence of every generation that their childhood was the most glorious passage of world history, that feeds our belief that the world is falling apart.
Take crime. Crime’s up, surely? Everyone knows that.
However, according to Olof Bäckman, professor of criminology at Stockholm University, crime rates have been falling for decades.
“The general crime rate in Sweden, and across most Western countries, has been going down since at least the 1990s. In Europe, that reduction is driven by reducing rates of property theft,” says Bäckman.
“It’s just very obvious that young men have stopped stealing so much stuff,” he says. “That’s the main driver for the declining crime rates in Sweden and in Europe.”
It’s an eye-catching statement. “Young men have stopped stealing stuff.” But why?
“First, things are harder to steal. For example, car security is now much more effective. And also, alcohol is a major factor in crime,” says Bäckman.
“The younger generation now don’t drink as much as previous generations. When Sweden entered the EU, the prognosis was that the whole country would turn into alcoholics because we’d have access to more alcohol. But that didn’t happen. The drinking pattern changed. Binge-drinking as part of youth culture has collapsed and it’s binge drinking which is linked to crime.”
As part of his research, Bäckman interviewed many teenagers about alcohol and alcohol consumption.
Video games are cooler than alcohol
“In their world it’s not cool if you drink so much that you puke. They know the people in the neighborhood or at school who drink too much, and they are not the coolest guys like they were for older generations. Something has happened. Something has changed. Part of the reason is that kids sit home playing video games and chatting on the internet. They’re not out as much and spending time in bars. We used to have a strong culture of getting drunk on Friday and Saturday nights but that is no longer part of most young mens’ lives.”
The dramatic life expectancy increases in almost all low income and middle-income countries in the world is also much unheralded news.
“We’ve seen a very big improvement in life expectancy in almost all the low- and middle-income countries in the world,” says Martin Kolk, a researcher and associate professor in the sociology department at Stockholm University.
“Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia now have much higher life expectancy than rich Western countries did 30 or 40 years ago. Generally poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa have also seen very rapid life expectancy increases.”
Asia overtaking Europe
Some once-poor Asian countries have even overtaken traditionally rich Western countries in regards to life expectancy. “South Korea has a higher life expectancy than almost all Western countries, even though it was a very poor society only 50 years ago,” says Kolk.
The average life expectancy of South Korean babies born in 2020 last reached 83.5 years, more than seven years longer than two decades ago and a whopping 21.2 years longer than in 1970.
“It used to be that only very rich countries had high life expectancy, but now we increasingly see that even moderately rich and quite poor countries also have much higher life expectancy.”
So to what do we owe this good news?
“Cheap, simple medicine has a very dramatic effect on population health when it’s implemented. Even inexpensive over-the-counter antibiotics that you can access in any sub-Saharan African city, is an important cause of improvement in life expectancy as well as infant mortality.”
But it’s also, certainly in South Korea’s case, due to an uptick in economic growth. And this development has also led to lower fertility rates and a slowdown in population growth, because women are having fewer children as they participate more in the economy.
“It’s probably quite similar to the processes that took place in Western countries in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when increasing economic participation, due to educational improvement and a rise in the number of females in education and employment, led to smaller families.”
Listen to the kids
This leads to a kind of virtuous cycle, where events reinforce themselves through a feedback loop. “When you have a higher female labour force participation,” says Martin, “and a higher number of women in education, then you have women having fewer children, and women having fewer children means it’s easier for them to be in the labour force and easier for them to be in education and so on.”
And this all means that population growth is slowing down, although it might be 80 years or so before growth plateaus.
But it’s good news nonetheless, albeit good news that might not always be reported because it doesn’t fit with the narrative that the world is going to hell in a handcart.
Of course, there is the existential threat of climate change. Here there is no easy solution, although many of the leading climate scientists believe that it’s still possible to keep the global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees this century.
While we can’t avoid climate change there’s still a chance we can mitigate it and adapt.
There is hope, and with an increasingly motivated environmentally-focused youth movement, together with global events like Cop26, countries, cities, organisations and businesses are now pivoting and moving more rapidly (and in a more organised way), on climate action.
However, climate aside, there’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequality and levels of extreme poverty in some countries.
There is, however, one more little morsel of positivity to which to cling.
According to a new international survey of more than 21,000 children and adults by UNICEF and Gallup, children and young people are nearly 50 per cent more likely than older people to believe that the world is becoming a better place.
Maybe it’s time we listened to the children.