Debunking the Myth of the Good Old Days

A few weeks ago, a single mother in South Carolina dropped off her 9-year-old daughter at a popular park, went to work, and then picked up the girl at the end of the day. The next day, she did the same thing. On the third day, authorities seized the girl, labeled her an abandoned child, and arrested the mother.

When I presented this situation to the group of women I supervise at my lifeguarding job, their response was unanimous: authorities were in the right. The mother was irresponsible. Public parks are no longer safe spaces for children to fly solo. Just imagine what could have happened! Times have changed, they told me. The women, most of whom are parents, admitted that they enjoyed more freedom growing up than their children did. But that lack of supervision made sense decades ago, right? Things today just aren’t like they used to be.Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 1.37.59 PM

With the 24-hour news cycle pushing stories of shootings, kidnappings, and endless conflict overseas, it’s easy to buy into the idea that the world is growing more and more unstable every day. Rhetoric about the moral decline of America is as rampant as student debt at a private university.

But were the good ol’ days really so great?

Turns out, the common perception of our dangerous world may be influenced more by crime shows and Nancy Grace than by reality. Take a look at the numbers. By most measures, the world is a better place than it was when your parents were growing up. We enjoy a safer, cleaner, freer country than ever before, and have every reason to believe the future will be just as rosy.

Here are 15 reasons to be optimistic about modern life:

  1. Fewer murders. The murder rate in the U.S. is less that half of what it was three decades ago. While there were 10.2 per 100,000 people in 1980, there were only to 4.7 in 2012.
  2. Lower crime overall. Robberies dropped 10 percent from 2009 to 2010, and decreased 8 percent from 2008 to 2009.
  3. Modern medicine. Infectious diseases caused over half of all deaths in 1900, but only 3 percent in 2010.
  4. Less poverty. In the 1960s, the U.S. poverty rate was pushing 20 percent. In recent years – despite the Great Recession – that number has remained around 15 percent.
  5. Safer cars. Safety features improve with every new model, as the percentage of auto accidents that are fatal continues to decrease. Did your parents’ first car even have seat belts?
  6. Recent job growth. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s June jobs report, there are now more jobs in the country than ever before.
  7. More high school graduation. The high school graduation rate has reached a record-high 81 percent, and is on track to hit 90 percent by the end of the decade.
  8. More college students too! More adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree than ever before.
  9. Less pollution. Our air cleaner today than it has been in decades. Concentrations of harmful pollutants like ozone and lead have decreased significantly, leaving us breathing more safely under clearer skies.
  10. Fewer smokers. The current smoking rate of 18.1 percent is a far cry from the 1965 rate of 42 percent. Considering that lung cancer is one of the leading causes of preventable death in America, that’s a great thing.
  11. Mass shootings have plateaued. This isn’t really an improvement, but the numbers show that there are no more mass shootings today than there were in 1976.
  12. Fewer deaths by lightning. While I doubt you were really ever worried about this, at least you know now that you don’t have to.
  13. More travel. DueScreen Shot 2014-07-25 at 1.37.10 PM to a number of factors, including growing transportation and lodging options, more people are traveling than ever before. The fastest-growing demographic of globe trotters? Young people.
  14. Engaged parents. Fathers specifically are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before.
  15. Think about all the tools we have now that didn’t even exist a few decades ago: Cell phones, personal computers, the Internet, caller ID, rechargeable batteries, digital photography, disposable contact lenses, electronic maps, minimally invasive surgery … should I keep going?

This is an exciting time to be alive. The list above is just a snapshot of all the progress that has been made in the last few years, and doesn’t even touch the strides being made toward better health, higher literacy, and greater acknowledgement of human rights worldwide. Instead of imagining what could have happened to that little girl left at the playground, we should be imagining all the ways the world will inevitably become a better place in years to come.

Sure, modern America has many faults. And yes, the American population is heavier than we used to be, and lags behind may other developed nations in several other quality-of-life metrics. Maybe you’re sad that flapper dresses, drive-in movies, Woodstock, and Seinfeld have all had their times come and go. But next time you find yourself longing for simpler times, check your nostalgia at the door and consider the facts.

Times have indeed changed ­– and that’s a good thing.


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