If You're Looking for Better Days, They Weren't 50 Years Ago

If You're Looking for Better Days, They Weren't 50 Years Ago
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In 1967, the United States had 500,000 troops in Vietnam, and peace talks had not even been proposed. The first organ transplant in history was not performed until December of that year, and the patient survived only 18 days. The U.S. poverty rate was over 28 percent, almost twice as high as today, as calculated by Columbia University researchers. Median American household income was 40 percent lower than it is today, even accounting for inflation.

If you’re looking for the good old days, you can stop your search. They’re happening right now. If you’re looking back nostalgically to the 60s, you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

Yet, more Americans think life is worse today. It’s hard to think of a way that life isn’t better, for the overwhelming majority of people. Yet somehow, only 37 percent of Americans think life is better today, compared to 41 percent who think it was better 50 years ago, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. The only logical response to the 41 percent who think life was better in 1967 is: “By what possible measure?”

Were we really better off medically in 1967, before the invention of the first MRI, lithotripters, commercial PET scanner, insulin pump, antiviral drugs, hepatitis A and B vaccines, balloon catheter, genetically modified organisms, LASIK laser eye surgery – and the first successful heart, kidney, lung, pancreas and intestine transplants? Anyone who thinks we were better off before the development of the first mumps vaccine or the last death from smallpox must have never known anyone who suffered from those diseases.

The health of Americans may be best measured in terms of outcomes. Life expectancy for American women has increased from 74 to 81 over the past 50 years; for men, it has risen from 67 to 76. In 1967, the mortality rate for children under five years old was 25.70 per 1,000 live births – about four times as high as today.

Were we better off economically in 1967? U.S. GDP is up 400 percent, from $3.8 trillion to $19 trillion. The median salary for males is up about 25 percent from just 30 years ago. Women are far more likely to work in profession ranks, and are paid about three times as much for doing so. The poverty rate among  African-Americans at 27 percent is still more than twice as high as among whites, but it has dropped significantly from over 40 percent in 1966. The poverty rate has dropped significantly for senior citizens. In the mid-1960s, more than 28 percent of Americans aged 65 and over lived below the poverty line. Today, it is just over 9 percent. There are about one million fewer elderly poor today than in 1966, despite the doubling of the elderly population.

We are better off technologically. We are better able to send and receive data, and keep in touch with each other, thanks largely to the Internet. In 1967, the original version – the ARPAnet— hadn’t even been created yet. Neither had the microprocessor. In 1977, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation said "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Today, it would be hard to find a home without one. And most have a laptop or tablet, or both.

The vast majority of Americans today are connected seamlessly through their smart phones. In 1967, people had 17 years to wait before Motorola came out with the first cell phone, which was bigger, clunkier, and more expensive than today’s smart phone – and which couldn’t serve as a camera or planning diary much less any other app.

Travel is much cheaper, thanks to airline deregulation. Entertainment is cheaper and much more readily available, thanks to DVDs, Netflix and iPods. Cars are cleaner, safer and more comfortable.

So if we are so much better off medically, economically and technologically than we were 50 years ago, why do more Americans think they are worse off? Partly because of high expectations. When we are younger, we are more optimistic – and life doesn’t necessarily match our hopes. Partly because it’s a lot easier to see how the other 1 percent live – and our own income doesn’t match up to the multi-million dollar salaries of sports stars, entertainers and high-tech CEOs.

But mostly, it’s because of what can only be described as retrospective glorification. We remember the past through a funhouse mirror, one that enlarges our happy experiences and makes our unhappy ones harder to recall and easier to discount. And we become so used to today’s conveniences, we take them for granted.

Obviously, we’d all like to go back to a time when we were younger. I’d like to go back to when I was in my 20s as well – but only if I could bring my smart phone, laptop and internet access with me.

The truth is, the good old days are now. And the better days are no doubt yet to come. Human ingenuity and knowledge is cumulative. As Sir Isaac Newton said, if he could see further ahead, it was because he stood “on the shoulders of giants.” We stand on the shoulders of more giants all of the time – allowing us to better see the future’s potential and better able to bring it to fruition.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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