Skip To Content

    Why Now Is The Best Time To Be Alive, Ever

    It might not feel like it, but the world is wealthier, healthier, longer-lived, and safer than it has ever been.

    The world feels pretty dark at the moment, doesn't it?

    But it's not. This is a golden age.

    For most of human history, lives have been solitary, poor, nasty, brutish – and very, very short.

    But now we're living longer...

    View this video on YouTube

    Hans Rosling/YouTube/BBC 4

    Today, the global average life expectancy is a whopping 71.5 years, according to a study last month in The Lancet. Admittedly, a lot of this is because so many more of us survive childhood, which brings the average up dramatically. But even taking that into account, we are much more likely to live long, healthy lives than any of our ancestors.

    And, as the amazing, heartening clip by Hans Rosling above shows, that's true around the world, not just in the developed West. The global average life expectancy has gone up by six years since 1990 – but in the developing world, the average has gone up by nine years. The WHO reports that the biggest jumps have come in poorer countries. Someone born in Liberia now can expect to live 20 years longer than if they were born in 1990. The gap between rich countries and poorer ones is narrowing.

    ...and not killing each other so much.

    View this video on YouTube


    It might not be that surprising that we're all living longer. After all, medical technology has improved, as has nutrition. But surely the world is more dangerous now? With all the terrorism and wars and murders?

    Well: no. The world has been getting safer for millennia. For most of human history, about 15% of people died violently. That means that about one person in six was murdered or killed in a war. The academic Steven Pinker estimates that in prehistoric times about 500 people out of every 100,000 were killed by other humans every year. Today, he says, that figure is more like 6 to 8, worldwide. In the West, it's even lower, but the decline is noticeable around the world.

    Incidentally, we think of the 20th century as uniquely bloody, because of its two world wars. But it wasn't. Pinker calculates that there were at least eight pre-20th-century wars that killed a greater percentage of the world population than the Second World War; the First World War doesn't even make the top 10. They were terrible wars, but terrible wars have happened throughout history.

    And since the second, it's got much better: We've managed to avoid any wars between major global powers at all (touch wood). Pinker calls this the "long peace".

    We're feeding people better, even though there are more of us.

    And the population isn't growing as quickly.

    View this video on YouTube

    Hans Rosling/YouTube/BBC 4

    Surely it can't continue, can it? We've just reached 7 billion people, and we're still growing. Eventually we'll simply run out of ways of making the Earth produce more food, and the crunch will hit, and we'll all starve.

    Or maybe not. Because while the population is still growing, the rate at which it's growing has slowed. Back in the 1960s, the average woman had 4.5 children. In 2012, it was 2.5. That's not in Europe or America, that's worldwide. That's because of improved family planning, but also because of improved education of women, and because of the increased likelihood that babies will survive to adulthood: You no longer need to have six kids to be sure that one will survive.

    If you've got an hour, the BBC documentary on this topic (also by Hans Rosling), above, is really worth it, and will make you feel much better about the world.

    This isn't just in rich countries, either. The whole world is getting richer and healthier.

    And we're not just getting richer and healthier: We're actually getting smarter.

    View this video on YouTube

    James Flynn/YouTube/TED

    People tend to think the kids today are stupid and feckless, but they're not: They're cleverer than their parents. There's something called the Flynn effect, named after a political scientist called James Flynn, who talks about it in the video above. He noticed that every few years, companies that set IQ tests have to recalibrate their scores every so often. That's because they define 100 as the average score. The average person in the population will always have a score of 100.

    The average person now would have had an IQ of 118 if they took a test in 1950, and 130 if they'd taken one in 1910, putting them in the top 2% of the population. And an average person from 1950 taking the test today would have a score which would put them "at the border of mental retardation", according to Pinker.

    The Flynn effect has been put down to improvements in education, nutrition, and health, and has been recorded in dozens of countries around the world. We are all getting cleverer.

    (Yes, IQ doesn't equal intelligence, but it correlates very well with success in education and jobs, and with your life chances in general.)

    And things will probably get better still.

    Via 20th Century Fox /

    So remember this when you see people worrying that the world is dangerous, or that we're all going to die of cancer or obesity or Ebola or MRSA, or that education isn't what it used to be, or that we're all going to starve because of overpopulation, or that we're having too many babies.

    The world is full of dangerous things, of course. Nothing's perfect and these improvements are not guaranteed to continue, and it looks like we've buggered the climate up, which could be a problem. But still, this is the safest, best, happiest time to be a human being there has ever been.