John D. Rockefeller was the richest man the world had ever seen.
But for most of his adult life he didn’t have electric lights, air conditioning, or sunglasses. And he never had penicillin, sunscreen, or Advil. This is not ancient history: One in twenty Americans were born before Rockefeller died.
The majority of Americans think the next generation of adults will be worse off than their parents.
I think of two things when I hear this.
One, the pessimists are probably wrong, extrapolating a bad decade into infinity. Two, progress is like compound interest – you don’t even notice it in the short run, but it’s mindblowing when you zoom out and see what can be accomplished over long periods.
There are so many things still wrong with the world, and the future will always be hard. But when confronted with pessimism, Warren Buffett reminds us that normal Americans “live better than John D. Rockefeller did.”
Here are some examples of how right he is.
- Life expectancy in America has increased from 47 years in 1900 to 78 years in 2011. That’s great. Here’s what’s better: The majority of that gain has come from declines in infant and childhood mortality. One in 15 babies born in 1900 didn’t see their first birthday; a fifth didn’t make it to age five. In America! Today fewer than seven in a thousand die before age five. The decline means 700,000 fewer kids die each year who would have died 115 years ago. That’s like adding a city the size of Seattle every year.
- To put that stat a different way: Being born in America in 1900 gave you a 79% chance of living for five years. Today, the five-year survival rate for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is 82%. So just being a kid 1900 was riskier than having lymphoma is today.
- Penicillin has saved between 80 and 200 million lives since first used in 1942, depending on whose estimates you use. Put that in context of deaths from World War I (~17 million) and World War II (~60 million), and it’s possible that Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery saved more lives than both world wars took.
- Auto fatalities per capita have declined so much in the last 80 years that every hour of every day, 5.6 people who would have died in car crashes in the 1930s are still alive today. Put another way: Without the improvement in auto fatalities, 487,500 more people would have died in car accidents in the last decade than actually did. That’s equal to the population of Sacramento.
- The frequency of U.S. recessions has plunged. From 1860 to 1900 we were in recession 48% of the time, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. From 1900 to 1940, 43% of the time. From 1940 to 1980, 15%. Since 1980, just over 12%.
- New homes today are, on average, more than1,000 square feet larger than they were in 1973, according to the Census Bureau. For perspective, the average house in 1900 was roughly 1,000 square feet total. So in 43 years we have added what people had in 1900.
- Microsoft sold a computer mouse in 1985 for $179, or $401 adjusted for inflation. Today $401 can buy you a Chromebook, a Kindle tablet, and an iPhone 5, with enough money left over for lunch.
- The percentage of American adults who smoke daily declined from 45% in 1965 to 18% in 2012,according to OECD. Which is to say: 65.5 million Americans who would have smoked daily 50 years ago don’t today.
- The number of cigarettes sold in America declined from 640 billion in 1981 to 360 billion in 2007, according to the Tobacco Situation and Outlook Report. Put another way: Americans smoke 8,878 fewer cigarettes per second than they did 35 years ago.
- Median household income during the boom year of 1929 was about $16,000 adjusted for inflation, according to Census Bureau data. It’s more than $53,000 today. What was average back then is now considered deep poverty, and what’s average today would put you in the top decile back then.
- According to the World Health Organization, “Measles vaccination has saved an estimated 17.1 million lives since 2000.” If those 17.1 million people were their own country it would be 65th largest in the world, sitting between Ecuador and Netherlands.
- “In the late 1940s to the early 1950s … polio crippled an average of more than 35,000 people in the United States each year,” writes the CDC. Today it’s wiped out.
- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,there were 1.75 million children age 10-15 working in America in 1900. That made up 6% of the labor force. Today, employment under age 16 is effectively banned.
- Nationwide murders declined from 23,326 in 1994 to 14,196 in 2014, according to the FBI. The difference – 9,130 per year – means one person per hour, every hour, is alive today who would have been murdered 20 years ago (more if you adjust for population growth). Similarly, robbery declined from 618,949 incidents in 1994 to 345,031 in 2014, a drop of 44%. Aggravated assault fell 35%.
- A December 2015 flight from Miami to Los Angeles was delayed and took 20 hours, which one passenger told CNN was “a nightmare that you can’t believe.” As recently as 1929 that 20-hour travel time would have been a world record.
- The percentage of women with bachelor’s degrees at age 18-33 nearly doubled from the Baby Boom to the Millennial generation, from 14% to 27%.
- “Hip fractures have been dropping by 15-20 per cent a decade for 30 years,” writes the Financial Times. One theory: We’re better at providing daily mobility assistance for those who need it.
- Rates of dementia for Americans over age 60 have declined by more than a third in the last 30 years. Some think better control of blood pressure led to a decline in ministrokes, which then reduced the prevalence of dementia.
- The DailyMail writes, “In 1900 a typical male was 5ft 6in tall, but by 2000 that had gone up to 5ft 10in … Researchers put the growth spurt mostly down to pregnant mothers eating better food which meant their babies grew up to be stronger and healthier.”
- In 1933 there were 37 workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers, according to OSHA. In 2009 there were 3.6 per 100,000. With 144 million U.S. workers, the decline means 48,100 fewer workers die each year who would have 80 years ago. Every 14 months we avoid as many workplace deaths compared to 1933 as U.S. soldiers died in the Vietnam War.
- The average expense ratio for equity mutual/index funds has declined 34% since 1996, according to the Investment Company Institute. The drop, from 1.04% a year to 0.68% a year, on a $100,000 portfolio growing 6% a year will save you $37,000 in fees over 25 years. Put another way: The decline in financial fees has added an extra year of retirement income to the average saver’s nest egg.
- Historian Deirdre McCloskey recently wrote , “A billion or so people on the planet drag along on the equivalent of $3 a day or less. But as recently as 1800, almost everybody did.” (Adjusted for inflation).
- The global fertility rate has declined from 5.1 babies per women in 1964 to 2.5 today, according to the Census Bureau International Database. This is wonderful: Fertility declines as countries become richer and infant mortality falls. In the 18th century Adam Smith wrote, “It is not uncommon in the highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne 20 children not to have 2 alive.”
- The percentage of the world living on less than $2 a day (adjusted for inflation) has been cut in half over the last 40 years, according to the World Bank.
- Americans over age 100 are the fastest growing age group, by far. In 1980 there were about 15,000 Americans over age 100. Today there are 78,000. By 2030, an estimated 138,000, according to the Census Bureau. That means the centenarian share of the population will more than quintuple, from 0.0007% in 1980 to 0.04% by 2030.
- In 1930 Americans spent more than 8% of their disposable income on energy, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. During the 1980s oil spike it peaked at more than 9%. Today it’s less than 4%, an all-time low. The decline in energy spending as a share of income since 1950 means the average household can spend $1,728 on other stuff each year that used to go toward energy.
- A BMW plant in South Carolina gets part of its power from methane siphoned off a nearby landfill. People don’t think of this kind of stuff when making peak-energy forecasts.
- Twenty people have received face transplants since 2005, according to Johns Hopkins Hospital. This was unfathomable 30 years ago.
- The percentage of an average household’s budget devoted to food fell from 46.4% in 1901 to 13% in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If that percentage had not declined the average household today would spend more than $2,100 a month on food.
- Real median wages have been stagnant for a while. But real median compensation – which includes things like health insurance subsidies and 401(k) matches – is up more than 40% since 1980. People are getting a raise, it’s just coming in the form of subsidies on ever-rising insurance premiums.
- We have a retirement funding crisis, which would sound like the most peculiar thing in the world to people 100 years ago, most of whom had no concept of retirement and worked until they died. In 1900 65.4% of men over age 65 were still working, according to the Census Bureau. And nearly all jobs were physically demanding. By the 1990s it was down to 17%.
- In 1900 the median age at death was 59. Today it’s 80, according to the Social Security Administration. So the average person today lives almost an entire generation longer than their great-grandparents.
- In 1900 it took four days to travel from New York to Los Angeles. Today it takes 19 hours to travel from New York to Singapore.
- The age-adjusted death rate per capita from heart disease has declined more than 70% since 1965, according to the National Institute of Health. The New York Times says this was “spurred by better control of cholesterol and blood pressure, reduced smoking rates, improved medical treatments — and faster care of people in the throes of a heart attack.”
- Health insurance prices are rising fast. But consider that anything resembling modern medical insurance didn’t even exist until the 1920s, when a group of Texas teachers began prepaying for hospital expenses. Health insurance wasn’t needed before the 1930s because medical care wasn’t that expensive, and it wasn’t that expensive because we didn’t know that much about medicine and couldn’t do a whole lot for sick people.
- People uploaded 657 billion pictures in 2014,according to Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. “Another way to think about it: Every two minutes, humans take more photos than ever existed in total 150 years ago,” writes The Atlantic.
- A 1996 computer catalog has an average list price of $3,412, or more than $5,200 adjusted for inflation. A Chromebook today can bepurchased for $101 and is, on every level, an order of magnitude or greater more advanced.
- Bank failures in the early 1930s wiped out deposits equal to 2.2% of GDP, according to the FDIC. That’s the equivalent of $396 billion today. Thousands of people lined up at banks, some for days on end, wondering if their money was gone. With FDIC insurance, no one with less than $250,000 in the bank has anything to worry about anymore. That’s amazing: What was once one of life’s biggest financial stresses isn’t even a thing anymore.
- “The United States uses less than half as much energy for every unit of GDP as it did in the 1970s,” writes energy analyst Daniel Yergin. This rise in efficiency cuts the effective energy price in half.
- “A new car in the 1970s might have averaged 13.5 miles to every gallon. Today, on a fleet average basis, a new car is required to get 30.2 miles per gallon,” writes Yergin. Here again, the effective price of gas is cut in half without even knowing it.
- “Between 1995 and 2005, Dow Chemical reduced its energy use on a worldwide basis, per pound of product, by 25 percent. Those savings are a big number; the same amount of energy would have been more than enough to supply electricity to all of California’s residents for a year,” Yergin writes.
- The gold medal winning time for the men’s 100-meter Olympic sprint improved by 21% from 1896 to 2012, from 12.2 seconds to 9.63 seconds. This is astounding when you consider we’ve been running for as long as we’ve been human. Our ability to keep improving at things you’d think we should have mastered tens of thousands of years ago is a good reason for optimism.
- The high-school graduation rate was 6.4% in 1900, 50.8% in 1940, 77.1% in 1970, a record-high 80% in 2012, according to the Department of Education.
- Here’s a short list of common conveniences that did not exist in 1940: Tylenol, Velcro, airbags, credit cards, ATM machines, nonstick pans, Tupperware, and calculators.
- Fatal airlines accidents have declined from more than 40 per year in 1970s to fewer than 10 per year in the last decade.
- Tom Goodwin writes , “The world’s largest taxi firm, Uber, owns no cars. The world’s most popular media company, Facebook, creates no content. The world’s most valuable retailer, Alibaba, carries no stock. And the world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb, owns no property.”
What a time to be alive.