Frequently I hear someone make the comment that things are just getting worse. Usually there are no supporting arguments or even evidence provided to bolster that claim. Yet, others who hear it as well typically nod their head in quick and solemn approval.
Is that right? Are things really getting worse? By what standard would that be true? Obviously, what is lacking is an established frame of reference for "better and worse." It often comes down to a general unease, rather than specific examples. Occasionally, that unease is sparked by some anecdote offered as evidence. So, it is worth considering whether things are worse than they were in the past. Let's examine some areas where things could be getting worse.
One area is morals. Are people less moral than in the past? What about sexual activity, for example? Actually, the teen pregnancy rate has dropped precipitously. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate today is lower than it was in the 1940s! But, aren't young people more sexually active today? Perhaps not. The percentage of teenage girls who have had sexual intercourse has declined from 51 percent to 42 percent since 1988. Or maybe it is due to increased abortions. Actually, the abortion rate among teens has been falling dramatically in recent years. It is down 42 percent from 1990 and is at its lowest rate since 1972.
Another piece of good news, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is the decline in the numbers of teens drinking and driving. The percentage who drank while driving has fallen by 54 percent in the past 20 years. It isn't just teenagers either. The number of deaths related to alcohol-impaired driving has declined 20 percent since 2006.
Perhaps things are getting worse in other areas besides morals. Maybe they are referring to crime. But according to FBI statistics, the violent crime rate today is half what it was 20 years ago. How about marriage? There are so many more divorces today, right? It depends. Divorce rates today are higher than they were 50 years ago. But the divorce rate today is 1/3 lower than it was 20 years ago, according to the Census Bureau. It is true there are fewer marriages. But those marriages are less likely to end in divorce today. That trend is heading in the right direction, and that's good news.
Perhaps it is our health. Maybe Americans are less healthy than they used to be. Maybe our quantity of life is diminishing, too. Yes and no. Americans are living longer than ever before. The average life expectancy today is over 78 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That is five years longer than it was 30 years ago. However, it is true that Americans are more obese today than in the past. The percentage of Americans who are obese has risen from 23 percent to 34 percent in the past 20 years. That is bad news. However, the silver lining is that most Americans realize the problem. According to the Gallup Poll, two-thirds of Americans consider themselves above their ideal weight and more Americans today are seriously trying to lose weight than was true 20 years ago.
Perhaps they are referring to more conflict in the world today than in the past, such as more war going on. Admittedly, there are several active conflicts today in places such as Syria, Sudan and Afghanistan. However, that is a difficult argument to make when compared to the past. In contrast to the first 50 years of the 20th century and the devastation of two world wars during that period, the world has been a relatively peaceful place to live in recent years.
I am not suggesting the absence of problems in the world today. However, to make the blanket statement that things are getting worse requires more than a declaration — it needs evidence. Yet, there is evidence that, in many respects, things are getting better, not worse. Perhaps that is worth remembering as we count our blessings this holiday season.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu