A golden age of progress

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One of the most pervasive myths in almost any society is that of the golden age. Humanity seems to have a deep need to believe that things were better in the good old days. When we left our front doors unlocked, children were in and out of each other's wattle-and-daub huts and the sunsets were more beautiful.

One of the most pervasive myths in almost any society is that of the golden age. Humanity seems to have a deep need to believe that things were better in the good old days. When we left our front doors unlocked, children were in and out of each other's wattle-and-daub huts and the sunsets were more beautiful.

Yet what is striking about the comparison of everyday life in 1954 and 2004 that we report today is how much better life now is, in almost every respect. We understand best, perhaps, the benefits of such recent innovations as mobile telephony, which have transformed the social geography of the nation. But today's survey reminds us of so many improvements that have happened, been taken for granted and are now forgotten.

Despite the common modern complaint about long working hours, 50 years ago most people worked a six-day week. For all the worries about the environment, air quality in British cities is far better, and the poisonous smogs of London are almost as distant a memory as the Great Plague. We are healthier; we are less likely to die of disease or in accidents; we are richer; we eat better; we have more choices in life. War rationing came to an end only in 1954. Above all, we are now more likely to be treated as of equal worth by our fellow citizens. We are less likely to be regarded as inferior or incapable if we are female, non-white, gay or do other people's cleaning, washing or look after their children.

The world of the 1950s is almost gone. One or two isolated redoubts remain, which seem ever more "old-fashioned and out of time", to quote the Secretary of State for Education. But they are, rightly, the objects of ridicule. Nostalgia is all very well, but we should not be unhappy to see that world disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

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