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After the Bell: Nostalgia is just not the same any more

After the Bell: Nostalgia is just not the same any more
Illustrative image | Sources: Rawpixel | Pxfuel.com | Unsplash

The thing about nostalgia is that it is just not what it used to be. And I mean that seriously. Nostalgia seems to have become much more intense and the results are unbelievable.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58% of US adults say that life in the US is worse today than it was 50 years ago. Only about a quarter (23%) say life today is better, while 19% say it is about the same. I am not making this up.

And there is more. The numbers are up very sharply from two years ago – 15 percentage points over just the past two years. The positive view of the past is shared by both Republicans and Democrats alike, though this view continues to be more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats. Roughly seven in 10 Republicans (72%) say that life is worse today, up from 59%, who said this in 2021. Among Democrats, 43% now say this, up from 30% two years ago.

Have they completely lost the plot? Just a very quick, off-the-top-of-my-head comparison between 1973 and 2023, I would list these among a huge number of improvements: medical care and dentistry, the pill, fitted sheets, taps that premix hot and cold water, better cars, sushi, the internet, basic rights for more people, and the end of the Cold War. Does nobody remember Richard Nixon, Vietnam, terrible music in the 1980s, and the endless “meat and two veg” meals? My colleagues say I should include three-blade razors, laptops and, of course, Air Jordans.

The global stats on the grand crises of our times are absolutely, overwhelmingly positive. They are so positive, it’s just incredible that anyone could be even vaguely dispirited. Just over 43% of the world lived in extreme poverty in 1973 — almost every second person. Now the number is 10%. Never in recent history has the downward trajectory been so dramatic. And a whole host of other key statistics in health and education follow the same pattern.

There is another thing that progressives around the world just refuse to believe: globally, inequality has dramatically declined over the past 50 years. I swear this is true. There is lots of academic research on the topic. It has indeed increased in some developed nations by small amounts, but those increases don’t come close to the longer-term, much more dramatic social changes that have happened over a longer period.

As poverty has declined, even as the 10th percentile (the highest) has taken more of the global wealth pie, the big winners have been the second, fourth and sixth percentiles, as the Our World in Data website shows.

The compilers of this data have also noticed the pessimism about their figures. If you ask people whether over the past 20 years extreme poverty around the world has increased, decreased, or stayed the same, on average 52% of people say it increased, and only 20% will say it has improved. Interestingly, the poorer the country, the less likely its citizens are to get the answer wrong. The only country where the majority of respondents said it has decreased was China. The citizens of developed countries are the most likely to get the question wrong. 

So, why is this happening? The one obvious answer is age: the older people get, the more likely they are to remember the past fondly. In the US example, adults over 50 are almost twice as likely to believe the present is worse than it was 50 years ago than people under 50. Ageing populations, consequently tend to be more nostalgic. I’m sure the pandemic and the increased vulnerability of the elderly exacerbated this feeling.

You can see this irrational pessimism having a huge effect on global politics (hello, Make America Great Again), and it’s especially visible in SA. I heard the other day, EFF leader Julius Malema saying that if guns were given to Russia it would be a good thing. Because, he reasons, Russia gave the ANC guns during apartheid. In other words, everything that’s happened over the past 30 years and more really counts for nothing: not the jobs at risk, not the changes in geopolitics, not the international condemnation of Russia.

And the intense focus of the SA political class on the apartheid years, in a perverse kind of way, their glory days when they were fighting the good fight, is apparent everywhere too. It seems SA is being run by people looking backwards not forward. The average age of Cabinet members is now well over 60; the average age of South Africans is 27.

South Africa – and the world – needs leaders who have more of a stake in the future and less of a rose-tinted view of the past. Obvs. DM

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  • Johann du Toit says:

    While extreme poverty may be less than 10 percent and inequality getting less in the rest of the world, that’s unfortunately not the case in SA. The Gini coefficient over time tells a different story.

  • charlesbotha says:

    What Malema and others like him don’t realise, is that the Russia (Soviet Union) that supplied arms and support to the anti-apartheid struggle is very different from the Russia of today. The communist party is no longer in charge there and has become a small side-line party. And Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union that supported the anti-apartheid struggle.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    The Republicans seem to be in the thrall of fanciful fiction, whether it be that Donald Trump is a muscular Aryan (serious laugh emoji), committed to Conservative Principle, or QAnon, or that the January 6th attack on the Capitol was just a peaceful protest, or maybe that Climate Change is a hoax … & on and on. To many of them, ‘facts’ have become evidence-free folderol (which, when confronted with the legal rules-of-evidence requirement, leads to almost 100% failure rates in courts at every level.) THAT is why so many of them believe they live in worse times.

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