Stephen King: Even if in one's fond imagination there was a golden age, life expectancy has never been greater

Wednesday 29 December 2010 01:00

Outlook Many of you have by now discovered that surfing the internet can conjure up all sorts of interesting material. Being an economist, I try to ignore the more obvious temptations and focus instead on facts and figures.

The other day, as my stomach was slowly adjusting to the excesses of the season, I stumbled across a House of Commons research paper written by Joe Hicks and Grahame Allen. Called A Century of Change: Trends in UK Statistics since 1900, it doesn't sound like the sort of thing you'd want to find in your Christmas stocking. It is, nevertheless, a stimulating read.

I should have got round to reading it before – it was published in December 1999 – but in those days the world economy was booming. Back then we didn't need to remind ourselves that we'd never had it so good. Today, perhaps, we do. After all, we're still licking our wounds from the financial crisis and we have yet to face the full onslaught of the Government's austerity measures. I'm not about to offer you tidings of comfort and joy but I do intend to provide you with just a little bit of perspective.

Children born today can reasonably expect to live to a ripe old age. Life expectancy for boys is more than 75 years and for girls is more than 80 years. For children born at the beginning of the 20th century, the chances of making it to retirement or beyond were fairly low: life expectancy for males was 45 years and for females 49 years. Those who survived into old age had to say goodbye to many young people along the way: Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), the author of, among other things, Cautionary Tales for Children, lost his wife to influenza in 1914 and his son to the Great War in 1918.

War and disease were, of course, the big killers in the first half of the century. We rightly care about the tragic loss of British lives in Afghanistan where 347 have so far perished in a conflict lasting almost a decade. But there were 270,867 British military deaths in the Second World War and 743,702 in the First World War.

As for disease, big killers in the late 19th century included "convulsions" (which probably meant meningitis, encephalitis or brain tumours) and a variety of specifically-identified infectious diseases. In 1880, for example, tuberculosis killed around 80,000 people whereas, in 1997, only 440 succumbed to this insidious pulmonary infection.

Thankfully, the widespread use of antibiotics and vaccinations, together with major advances in sanitation and hygiene, has reduced the chances of being sent to the morgue prematurely. Admittedly, the chances of dying from cancer and heart disease have risen but that's only because these diseases are more prevalent among the elderly: life expectancy may have gone up but we do all eventually have to meet our maker.

People today are better educated and end up with better jobs. More people go to university. Young women have seen a revolution in educational opportunities. Literacy rates have risen rapidly. In 1876, 16 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women could not sign their name, according to a report from the Registrar General.

Mind you, even by the end of the 20th century, about 100,000 school leavers were entering the big wide world without the necessary literary skills, an unhelpful result given that prison populations are disproportionately made up of those who struggle with the basics of reading and writing. Indeed, if there's one area where living standards have gone backwards rather than forwards, it's crime.

Recorded indictable offences (relative to population size) increased dramatically through the 20th century, as did homicides. Since the mid-1960s, the number of homicides per million people has doubled, despite a huge increase in police numbers. At the same time, the prison population has risen dramatically (almost entirely thanks to men: women appear not to be quite so naughty).

Those of a mischievous disposition – or economists who don't think enough about causality – might be tempted to argue that increased policing and more prisoners are leading to higher rates of crime. But then we might as well correlate crime statistics against data for the number of coal miners (it's gone down) or the price of a pint of beer (it's gone up). Could it be that unemployed miners who can no longer afford a pint of beer have turned to a life of crime?

It seems unlikely. The miners' lot may not have been a happy one but, on the whole, people in the UK have got richer over the past 100 years. Per capita incomes amounted to only around £3,500 per year (in 1995 prices) in 1900 and, over the following 50 years, increased by a relatively paltry 37 per cent: wars, general strikes and depressions really didn't help. In the second half of the 20th century, however, per capita incomes rose by 191 per cent.

Britain may have lost an empire but its people nevertheless became a lot better off: indeed, by the end of the century, average incomes had quadrupled compared with 1901, the year of Queen Victoria's death. And, as incomes went up and productivity rose, so occupations changed: in 1900, more than 2 million people worked on the land and another 2 million were engaged in domestic service, as anyone who has tuned into Downton Abbey will doubtless have recognised. Unlike the Downton thespians, however, this was real back-breaking work. Nowadays, people are more likely to be engaged in estate agency, financial services, retail trade, education and health: any physical effort is likely to take place in the gym.

And as the nation's economic health has improved, so its willingness and ability to provide public services has soared. Before the First World War, public spending amounted to a little over 10 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product). Even allowing for the cutbacks planned by the Coalition, spending will only drop to around 40 per cent of GDP, not far off the average for entire post-war period. We may be in for a bout of austerity, but it would be wrong to suggest we are heading back to the economic dark ages.

One final point. It's often argued that, in Britain, there is no more room in the inn. The population has, apparently, hit its maximum size: our island nation cannot cope with any further increase. But what counts as a "maximum"? In 1901, the UK's population stood at 38 million. It has progressively risen since then, during periods of both immigration and emigration. We're now at around 62 million. Can the population rise further? Undoubtedly yes. Have we planned for such an eventuality? Definitely not. The number of new dwellings constructed in the UK reached a peak in 1968 and has been falling ever since, despite ever-increasing demand. There may be no more room at the inn for the time being but that simply tells us that we should be building more inns, even if we have to forgo some of England's green and pleasant land.

Despite all the worries about the financial crisis, looming austerity, the high unemployment rate and the rising crime rate, we can at least look back and count our many blessings. Life isn't always great but it's a lot better than it used to be. I wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

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