Was The World Really Better In The Past?

Was The World Really Better In The Past?

With the rise of populism in recent years, many people (including this writer) have at times dramatically declared that the world of today is in some sort of crisis. Somewhat ironically, the rise of populism was fuelled by a similar belief: that the world used to be better in the past, and we should do everything in our power to return to the halcyon days of years gone by. Donald Trump said he would make America great “again”. Brexiter Nigel Farage promised to help the UK take “back” control from the EU. Both slogans promised that things would be great, just like they used to be.

This is a theme exploited by politicians the world over, not just in the West. The large problem is that things were obviously much worse in the past. It’s common to hear statements like, “Wasn’t America amazing in the 60s?” But was it? If you were a man, there was a good chance you would be forced to kill other humans in a war in Vietnam, regardless of your views about the merits of killing strangers. If you were a black person, you faced segregation. Women and homosexual people didn’t have much fun either. Risk of a global nuclear miscalculation were perhaps the highest they have ever been. The glory days indeed.

Since the 1960s, on almost every key development metric, the world has improved. And whether you like to believe it, today is the best time ever to be alive. Have a look at these charts and try to argue otherwise (hypothetically, and not with me). “But the music was better than all the rubbish on the radio these days.” Even here, this is an illusion. Neuroscience has shed a light on every generations’ convenient belief that music was ‘the best’ when they were growing up. Indeed, at 30, I already find myself turning off the radio when the charts are playing.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans show that our favourite songs stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuits, releasing serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin (the stuff that makes us feel good). From the age of 12-22, as our brains are undergoing rapid neurological development, the music we love gets wired into our frontal lobes for good. It creates strong memory traces that are full of heightened emotion during your key developmental years. Put simply, you believe music in your generation was the best because of your neurology, not because it actually was.

Make My Life Great Again

The music analogy is perfect for explaining why we all hark back to the past in other aspects of our lives. We wish to return to a time when our lives were more fun on a personal level. Being 20 is probably more fun than being 70. You have less responsibility, your body is functioning well, and the world seems new and exciting. You wish for a return to your youth, regardless of what state the rest of the world is actually in.

Roger Daltry, lead singer of British rock band The Who summed up this predicament perfectly. He once sang about old people not understanding his generation. Now 74, he’s a vocal supporter of Brexit. His viewpoint is partially underpinned by his belief that things were much better in what he termed the pre-EU “glory days” of the 60s and 70s. In those glorious times in the UK, power cuts and lengthy blackouts were the norm, garbage lay strewn across Britain’s streets, and London basked in the sweet fragrance of burning coal from power stations. Could it be that Daltry’s historical worldview is coloured by his memories of playing sold-out gigs, having flings with groupies, and partying 24/7 as lead singer of one of the world’s greatest rock bands?

You Don’t Become More Right-Wing As You Age

I already notice my internal monologue sneering at elements of youth culture. You do too, most probably. But it’s a slippery slope. It’s a commonly-held belief that people naturally become more conservative as they age. But on closer inspection, this is not the case. What actually happens is that you develop a concrete worldview as a young adult. As you age, you hold onto and solidify these beliefs. Meanwhile, the rest of the world changes rapidly around you as the decades pass. The ‘you’ of your twenties may have held views which were forward-thinking and liberal. But, by holding these same views with you into your seventies, you’re likely to find yourself massively out of step with global popular opinion.

So, what to do? Rather than sneering at younger people’s ‘naive’ world views, it would make sense to look at history and accept that these will eventually be the accepted views of society one day. If this wasn’t the case, women would still be unable to vote and homosexuality would be illegal in the West. The much easier option, of course, is to resist any change at all. And pray that, while voting for a return to the past, someone somewhere invents a time machine to actually take you back.

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