diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 12, 2017

When was the best year to be born? Or is it still to come?

Sorry, my mind wanders to these things when global and homegrown events suggest the future might not be as bright as we'd all hoped.

So what I thought I'd do is imagine a typical UK citizen born in 1850, and every twenty years thereafter, and consider the quality of the decades they lived through. Which year of birth will win out?

Below is a table showing the lifespan of a person born on 1st January 1850. Average life expectancy at birth in 1850 was 41, which is why I've underlined the 1890s. But I'm assuming this imaginary person gets to live ten years longer than that, because it's nice to be an optimist.


For a typical 1850-born citizen, assuming they survived infancy, life got inexorably better the older they became. Industrialisation and the spread of Empire brought increased prosperity, and improvements in science enhanced the nation's health and living conditions. That won't have been everyone's experience, I know, but generally speaking an 1850 birth beats every previous year.


An 1870 birth should have been better, indeed twenty years better, in terms of technological and social progress. Life expectancy had now increased to 43, so the average 1870-born child died in 1913. But for those who lived through to the following year the Great War brought a tragic downturn, even if they were no longer young enough to be conscripted. I've used orange to suggest that the 1910s was a challenging decade to live through, and a slightly brighter shade of green for improvements in the decade beyond.


Despite advances in society, and an increase in life expectancy to 46, anyone born in 1890 ended up having it tough. In their mid-twenties when World War 1 started, this was the generation sent off to fight in the trenches, and those who survived into their 50s then had to endure the Home Front of World War 2 too. With two red sections in their life to face up to, 1890 was by no means the luckiest time to be born.


A child conceived at the end of the Edwardian era may not have noticed the setbacks of their wartime childhood, and may have flourished in the enlightenment of the Twenties and Thirties. But aged 29 when World War 2 broke out, and unavoidably involved in the 20th century's ghastliest war, a heavy price was paid. Thankfully for those who made it through, on average to 1963, life got inexorably better.


Those born in 1930 missed WW1 and were too young to be called up for WW2, but will have endured the many trials of a wartime childhood. Rationing won't have made their young adulthood easy, but improvements in living standards then came thick and fast, with retirement better than any had known before, and average life expectancy tipping over sixty years of age.


At last, for the first time since 1850, we see a lifetime unblemished by global war. It turns out that 1950 has been a great year to be born, with life made increasingly comfortable as advances in science and technology took hold. I hesitate to mention that the average life expectancy for a 1950 birth is 68 years, but rest assured that if you're a 67 year-old and you're reading this, official statistics suggest you've an even chance of reaching the end of the 2020s. All we don't know at this stage is what the 2020s are going to be like...


By default a 1970s birth should be better than a 1950s birth, indeed this generation's generally done better than its parents. But look at how much of this row is grey, and hence as yet undecided. By the mid 2040s, which is the decade current life expectancy suggests, there'll have been 30 further years we so far know nothing about. These could be brilliant, with steady steps towards a comfortable technological utopia, or they could be more restrictive and precarious, bringing an unexpected downgrade from green to orange.


Hello to those of you born in 1990, or thereabouts. The society in which you live is better than any have previously known, even if you're not feeling the economic benefits those born earlier enjoyed. On average you still have over half a century of life ahead of you, so long as nothing ghastly happens in the meantime, like that climate change they warn about, or the robots taking over, or some idiot in a bunker with a button. By rights your future should be an even brighter shade of green, but will it be... and can we avoid red?


Which brings us to the latest generation, still under ten years of age, and projected to live through to the last years of the 21st century. These children still have everything to look forward to, for decades to come, the colour of their timeline almost entirely undecided. The rest of us ought to be jealous of every amazing thing they'll see, but it's also possible it was better to have been around before depression, repression and turbulence become commonplace.

It is of course too early to judge the best year to be born, and that year should still be far, far into the future. But if politicians and society get it wrong, then we may look back on our current decade as a golden age of prosperity and freedom for all, assuming we're even around to look back at all. Let's do our best to make sure 1950 doesn't turn out to have been the optimal start of the best possible life, and work to make all our grey years green.

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