A history of global living conditions in 5 charts

All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse?

A recent survey showed that very few people think that the world is getting better.

But in the following 5 charts Max Roser showed that, if you take a look back at history, how global living conditions have improved

1. Povertymoney world

To see where we are coming from we must go far back in time.

30 or even 50 years are not enough.

When you only consider what the world looked during our life time it is easy to make the mistake of thinking of the world as relatively static – the rich, healthy and educated parts of the world here and the poor, uneducated, sick regions there – and to falsely conclude that it always was like that and that it will always will be like that.

Take a longer perspective and it becomes very clear that the world is not static at all.

The countries that are rich today were very poor just very recently and were in fact worse off than the poor countries today.

2. Literacy  

How did the education of the world population’s change over this period?

The chart below shows the share of the world population that is literate over the last 2 centuries.

In the past only a tiny elite was able to read and write.

Today’s education – including in today’s richest countries – is again a very recent achievement.

It was in the last two centuries that literacy became the norm for the entire population.

3. Health

One reason why we do not see progress is that we are unaware of how bad the past was.

In 1800 the health conditions of our ancestors were such that around 43% of the world’s newborns died before their 5th birthday.

The historical estimates suggest that the entire world lived in poor conditions; there was relatively little variation between different regions, in all countries of the world more than every third child died before it was 5 years old.

In 2015 child mortality was down to 4.3% – 100-fold lower than 2 centuries ago.

You have to take this long perspective to see the progress that we have achieved.

4. Freedom

Political freedom and civil liberties are at the very heart of development – as they are both a means for development and an end of development.

The chart shows the share of people living under different types of political regimes over the last 2 centuries. globe economy growth health world heart decline map

Throughout the 19th century more than a third of the population lived in colonial regimes and almost everyone else lived in autocratically ruled countries.

The first expansion of political freedom from the late 19th century onward was crushed by the rise of authoritarian regimes that in many countries took their place in the time leading up to the Second World War.

In the second half of the 20th century the world has changed significantly: Colonial empires ended, and more and more countries turned democratic:

The share of the world population living in democracies increased continuously – particularly important was the breakdown of the Soviet Union which allowed more countries to democratise.

Now more than every second person in the world lives in a democracy.

The huge majority of those living in an autocracy – 4 out of 5 of those that live in an authoritarian regime – live in one country autocracy: China.

5. Fertility

If you click on ‘Absolute’ in any of the previous charts you see the increase of the world population over the last 2 centuries.

The world population was around 1 billion in the year 1800 and increased 7-fold since then.

Population growth increased humanity’s demand for resources and amplified humanity’s impact on the environment.pendulum market economy world china europe globe trade stock share

But this increase of the world population should evoke more than doom and gloom.

First of all, this increase shows a tremendous achievement.

It shows that humans stopped dying at the rate at which our ancestors died for the many millennia before.

In pre-modern times fertility was high – 5 or 6 children per woman were the norm.

What kept the population growth low was the very high rate with which people died and that meant that many children were dead before they reached their reproductive age.

The increase of the world population followed when humanity started to win the fight against death.

Global life expectancy doubled just over the last hundred years.

Population growth is a consequence of fertility and mortality not declining simultaneously.population association people

The fast population growth happened when fertility was still as high as it was in the unhealthy environment of the past, but mortality has already declined to the low levels of our time.

What we have seen in country after country over the last 200 years is that once women realise that the chances of their children dying has declined substantially they adapt and chose to have fewer children.

Population growth then comes to an end.

This transition from high mortality and fertility to low mortality and fertility is called the demographic transition.

In those countries that industrialised first it lasted at least from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century – it took 95 years for fertility to decline from above 6 children to less than 3 children per woman in the UK.

Countries that followed later sometimes achieved this transition much faster: South Korea went from more than 6 children per woman to less than 3 in just 18 years, Iran even achieved it in just 10 years. business world

Just as countries went through this transition so is the world going through this transition.

Global fertility has more than halved in the last 50 years, from more than 5 children per woman in the early 1960s to below 2.5 today.

This means that the world is well into the demographic transition and global population growth has in fact peaked half a century ago.

Now that we see fertility declining everywhere we come to an end of population growth: The global population has quadrupled over the course of the 20th century, it will not double anymore over the course of this century.

And at the end of the century the UN expects a slow annual population growth of 0.1% whereas the demographers from IIASA expect an end of population growth around the year 2075.

6. Education

None of the achievements over the last 2 centuries could have been achieved without the expansion of knowledge and education.

The revolution in how we live was not only driven by education it also made education more important than ever.

The visualisation below shows the projection of the IIASA institute for the size and the educational composition of the world population until 2100.

It is an interesting look into the future: With today’s lower global fertility the researchers expect that the number of children will decline from now – there will never be more children on the planet than today.

7. Why do we not know this? world tablet

The difficulty for telling the history of how everyone’s lives changed over the last 200 years is that you cannot pick single stories.

Stories about individual people are much more engaging – our minds like these stories – but they cannot be representative for how the world has changed.

To make it easier for myself and for you to understand the transformation in living conditions that we have achieved I made a summarizing visualisation in which I imagine this 200 year history as the history of a group of 100 people to see how the lives of them would have changed if they lived through this transformative period of the modern world.

Why do we not know this?

Source: Our World in Data

The author Dr. Max Roser is an economist working at the University of Oxford and wants to understand how the world is changing and why. His research focuses on poverty, health, and the distributions of incomes


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