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The golden age
When life was better. . . . Wasn't it?
Every generation imagines a golden age, a time when life was simpler, people were happier and more united, and the future was more secure. Often the imagined golden age coincides with the period when the imaginers were children. As the sectional crisis in America deepened in the 1830s and 1840s, Americans looked back to the era of the nation's founding, when they were united against Britain. As urban life accelerated in the 1920s, Americans fondly remembered the 19th century when their grandparents were farmers living a peaceful bucolic life. At the beginning of the 21st century, when inequality was rising and jobs were disappearing overseas, Americans looked back to the 1950s as the halcyon era of American manufacturing and of the American middle class.
The identifying of golden ages with the time of one's childhood is no accident. For very many adults, their childhood has the principal characteristics of a golden age. Life for most children is simpler, slower and seemingly more secure than for adults. Children have parents to do the worrying for them, to do the battling with the outside world, the planning for the future.
Humans of all ages tend to extrapolate from their own experience. If life was simple for them, they think life was simple for others. Their parents know better—although this doesn't prevent the parents from imagining a different golden age, when they were children.
But a larger question remains. Was there a golden age, in objective terms? Was there a time when human life was better?
One approach to the question is to imagine living at different times in the past and asking, Is this better than the time I came from? Put a human from the 21st century back in the 1st century, the 10th century, the 15th century, the 20th century—how does life feel? Better than the 21st century?
Different people have different tastes, of course. And different people can experience the same era differently. The rich fare better than the poor in every era. To compare eras, then, one must consider what life was like for ordinary people.
What was life like for ordinary people in earlier ages? Nasty, brutish and short, said Thomas Hobbes, and he wasn't far off. The mortality of infants and children was as high as fifty percent for all but the last few centuries of human history. Infectious disease and wounds of war carried off many youngish adults. Vitamin deficiencies warped spines and bowed legs. Famine followed failure of crops or attacks by locusts and other pests.
Before the 19th century, ordinary people rarely had access to education. If they learned to read—boys more commonly than girls—they had few books, magazines or newspapers to read from. Average people didn't have access to indoor plumbing even in wealthy countries. Few people traveled more than a short distance from where they were born.
By the early 20th century, life in the wealthiest countries included some of the things we in the 21st century take for granted. Trains gave people mobility; automobiles gave them more. Airplanes were for the daring, first, and then for the rich. Not till the end of the 20th century did average folks take to the air in large numbers.
In wealthy countries, telephones became common by the middle of the 20th century, and televisions during the next couple of decades. But both remained rare in much of the rest of the world. Two staples of modern communication—mobile telephones and the internet—didn't catch on widely until the very end of the 20th century.
Vaccines and antibiotics gradually reduced the toll of disease. But before the final third of the 20th century, cancer was so normally fatal that many people refused to utter the ominous "C" word.
Possibly all this misses the point. Maybe the golden age is not about material standards of living but about states of mind. Are we today necessarily better off because we live longer, healthier lives than any generation before us? Are we necessarily happier because we occupy cleaner, safer homes? Are we necessarily more fulfilled as human beings because we are better educated and better traveled?
Not necessarily. Monks and other ascetics might be the happiest people on earth. But most of us don't choose to be monks, and when given the choice, most of us do choose those things that conduce to material well-being.
Of course we sometimes overdo it. Many of us, in many cases, would be better off with less. But our very overindulgence—in food, for example—is evidence that for eons of our evolutionary history, scarcity was a constant challenge that wired appetite into our DNA.
Moreover, people in the past didn’t miss what no one of their time had ever experienced. Before electricity, going to bed when it got dark wasn’t seen as a hardship. In an age when half your friends died before turning twenty, early death wasn’t even considered early. If grapes can be had only during your hemisphere’s summer, you might appreciate their taste more than people who eat them year round.
Three conclusions can be drawn. First, it is impossible to know if people who lived in one age were happier or unhappier than people who lived in other ages. Happiness is simply too subjective.
But, second, it is almost certainly the case that anyone traveling to the past from the 21st century would feel deprived. That person would know what he or she is missing.
And so, third, the idea of a golden age is a will-o'-the-wisp, because golden ages are always conceived retrospectively. They are pleasant to imagine, but if we could somehow go back to them—as adults rather than children—we probably wouldn't like them much.