Recently I have been asking people a question.
"If you could choose any year in which to be born for a random person, which would you choose? You don't get to pick your social status, ethnicity or gender, just a country and a year. Your goal is to maximize quality of life for this random person."
The responses have generally fallen neatly into two camps. Either people say '2011' or they say something between 1950 and 1960. They generally agree that growing up before 1950 is not ideal because you might be born nonwhite, a female, gay or anything else outside white straight man and find that your life sucks for no particular reason. The stark difference between the answers seemed to come down to people who thought that the future was going to be a bad place and those that thought it would be a good place. If you think things are getting better then it makes sense to pick 2011 as the date because there is no more equality or freedom at any point in the past than there is today and things look like they are going to only improve. If you think the future is bleak then picking 1950 allows you to grow up, have a career, have kids and be in the later stages of life when witnessing the fall or perhaps just decay of humanity.
I don't buy the idea that things are getting worse. Overwhelmingly our indicators of quality of life have been improving all over the world for decades or centuries now and that improvement is accelerating. There is no sign of a collapse of civilization nor some levelling off of improvement. There is no end of doomsaying and pessimism of course but I have not yet seen any of that which has convinced me that the constant upward trend will stop, particularly because no matter what time period you examine the same refrain of 'civilization has hit its peak and it is all downhill from here' is constant. Were there people predicting imminent collapse of the economy, the environment and morality in the 1950s? Yes! How about 1800? Yes! How about 2800 BC? Yes!
“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching,” attributed to an Assyrian stone tablet of about 2800 B.C.
No matter when or where you look the conclusion that we are at the peak and everything is going to hell is ubiquitous. The most remarkable thing is that these conclusions are so constantly wrong. There were a few times when they were right, of course, like just as the Roman Empire was set to collapse. Of all those millions of predictions though very, very few were correct. The things we know for sure are that things have consistently, constantly gotten better for humanity with a few bumps in some places and that doomsaying has no correlation whatsoever with actual danger. We can look forward to cars powered by thorium reactors that produce no emissions and never need to be refueled for their entire useful life, a cure for HIV and a cure for the common cold. These aren't proven technologies yet but they are happening. There is so much more that we can and will develop to make things better than they ever have been before.
Don't believe me? Read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Note that it isn't that we don't have problems, we do. The world isn't perfect and many of the new solutions we come up with will create their own issues. Nobody rational is claiming that the world is perfect, nor that it will be perfect. There are plenty of people claiming that things are good and that they are going to get better though, and those people are right. The future is going to be *awesome*.