What a time to be alive

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What a time to be alive.

Former Wall Street journalist Morgan Housel recently wrote an uplifting blog entitled "What a Time to Be Alive". His list of reasons to feel good about being alive right now ran over seven pages.

Housel's introduction referred to John D. Rockefeller who is considered the richest man the world has ever seen. Despite Rockefeller's wealth however, through most of his adult life he didn't have electric lights, air conditioning, sunglasses or penicillin.

There are all sorts of things Rockefeller didn't have.

So much so that Housel implied, as others including Warren Buffett have suggested in the past, that 'ordinary' middle class Americans today are materially richer than was America's richest man a mere 100 years ago.

Housel provided plenty of examples to support the notion that while the present day might be challenging and the future may sometimes look bleak, we're in better shape than our forefathers.

Given that progress, like compound interest, happens while we're not even looking, the next generation likely has even more reason to feel optimistic.

  • Life expectancy in America increased from 47 years in 1900 to 78 years in 2011. The majority of that gain has come from declines in infant and childhood mortality. The decline means 700,000 fewer kids die each year who would have died 115 years ago.
  • Penicillin has saved between 80 and 200 million lives since first used in 1942. The accidental discovery of penicillin has saved more lives than both world wars took.
  • The frequency of US recessions has plunged. From 1860 to 1900, America was in recession 48% of the time. Since 1980, recessionary conditions have only existed 12% of the time.
  • Median household income during the boom year of 1929 was about $US16,000 adjusted for inflation. What was average back then is now considered deep poverty, and what's average today would have been considered top decile back then.
  • The percentage of women with bachelor's degrees at age 18-33 has nearly doubled from the Baby Boom to the Millennial generation, from 14 percent to 27 percent.
  • In 1933 there were 37 workplace fatalities per 100,000 workers. In 2009, there were 3.6 per 100,000.
  • The percentage of the world living on less than $US2 per day (adjusted for inflation) has been cut in half over the last 40 years.
  • In 1930 Americans spent more than 8 percent of their disposable income on energy; today it is less than 4 percent, an all-time low.
  • In 1900 the median age at death was 59. Today it's 80. 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.
  • Numerous common conveniences of today did not even exist in 1940: Velcro, airbags, Tupperware, calculators and nonstick pans. Let alone technological advancements like cellphones, Skype, and downloadable music.
  • The gold medal winning time for the men's 100-metre Olympic sprint improved by 21 percent from 1896 to 2012, from 12.2 seconds to 9.63 seconds. This is amazing when you consider we've been running for as long as we've been human.

It is easy to believe the pessimists and extrapolate a bad year or a bad decade into infinity.
But when you zoom out and consider all that has been accomplished over long periods, it's easy to see why today is indeed a great time to be alive.


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