I read the book It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years, by Stephen Moore and Julian Simon.
Published in 2000, it's a great book about how life in America and throughout the world consistently improved during the 20th century.
Here are six things I learned.
1. The gains in leisure time are extraordinary:
Today, the average U.S. household spends about 10 times as much on recreation as it did in 1900 and about 3 times as much as it did in 1950. Americans have 3 times more leisure time over the course of their lifetimes than their great-grandparents did. ...
In 1965 the average American had 34.5 hours of free time available during the week. By 1985 Americans had 40 hours a week for leisure. From 1965 to 1985 the greatest increase in free time was recorded for women who work in the labor force. Working women have on average one hour a day more free time than in the 1960s. The long-term data are even more encouraging. The Dallas Federal Reserve Board study on work and leisure found that the average American has three times more leisure hours over his lifetime than his ancestors of the late 19th century did. Just over the past
2. Medical care was a joke until the last half-century:
Medical care was astonishingly primitive by today's standards. Abraham Flexner, writing in the famous Flexner report on medical education in 1910, commented that up until then, a random patient consulting a random physician only had a 50-50 chance of benefiting from the encounter. Health historian Dr. Theodore Dalrymple notes that up until the late 19th century it was often considered "beneath a physician's dignity to actually examine a patient." Most of the drugs used throughout the ages -- including arsenic, which was still used up through the early 1900s -- were useless and in many cases poisonous. Oliver Wendell Holmes supposedly once declared that if all of the drugs in his time were tossed into the ocean it would be better for mankind and worse for the fish.
3. Education was a huge trend of the 20th century:
In 1900 only about 1 in 10 children went to high school. That is a figure so low that it would be an embarrassment even to a poor country today. Now in the United States more than 9 in 10 do. Illiteracy has fallen by more than two-thirds in the United States and even by a greater percentage in poor nations.
4. Food productivity exploded:
The United States feeds three times as many people with one-third as many total farmers on one-third less farmland than in 1900.
One of the most important technological changes in agriculture was the transition to the modern tractor. It was not until the early 19th century that farmers discarded the hoe and the spade and could afford to purchase horses and mules for plowing. The transition from horses and mules to modern farm machinery for tilling the soil and harvesting the crop did not begin until the 1920s. In 1955, for the first time, more farm tractors than horses were used in agriculture.
One way to pay tribute to American farmers is to compare their productivity with that of farmers around the world. The American farmer is about 40 percent more productive than his closest rival, the European farmer. Over the past 20 years the U.S. productivity lead has widened.
5. Life is safer:
In the 1980s the death rate from accidents fell by 20 percent and in the 1990s it fell by another 3 percent. Accidental death rates have fallen steadily for every age group.
The biggest improvements have been in the rate of accidents for infants (down 88 percent since 1900) and for seniors (down 72 percent). Fatal accidents in the home are also rarer than ever -- again a reflection of improved technology. In the 1920s and 1930s roughly 25 Americans out of 100,000 died in home accidents -- fires, falls, accidental shootings, smothering -- versus about 20 such deaths in 1950, and now roughly about 15.
Incredibly, even in absolute numbers, despite a doubling of the population, deaths from home accidents have declined from 29,000 in 1950 to 26,500 in 1996.
6. Doing OK isn't hard anymore:
Political scientist James Q. Wilson points out that "You need only do three things to avoid poverty in this country: finish high school, marry before having a child, and produce the child after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor; 79 percent of the those who fail to do this are poor. "
Go buy the book here. It's great.
- What I learned from "This will make you smarter"
- What I learned from "How to fail at everything"
- What I learned from The Bed of Procrustes"
Contact Morgan Housel at email@example.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.