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plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

This post is by Phil, and I’m writing about the slow pace of change in 21st-century America.

[Note added later: at the time that I wrote this, I was unaware that a year-and-a-half ago Andrew had written a similar post on the theme. I suspect I, and perhaps most of this blog’s readers, missed it because he posted it on New Year’s Day].

[Note added later still: evidently I’m wrong and I did see Andrew’s post, because I left a comment on it: “If you want to pick a 50-year period, with nice round numbers for the start and the end, my vote for the biggest lifestyle change for Americans is 1900-1950. Radio, telephone, television, indoor plumbing, refrigerators, home air conditioning, automobiles, airplanes… in the past 50 years all of those things have gotten better than they used to be (although I’m not sure there have been any major advances in indoor plumbing), but the change is small compared with having vs not having.”   And I was wrong about indoor plumbing, which most people did not have in 1900.]

At lunch yesterday I stopped into a bookstore (yes, we still have them!) and picked up an Elmore Leonard book that I haven’t previously read: The Big Bounce. The cover has photos of some present-day actors, and says “now a major motion picture!”, so I figured the book was probably written in the 90s or early naughts…until I came across a reference to someone living in a “hundred thousand dollar house,” in a context in which that was clearly supposed to be a big number. The book was in fact published in 1969.

And here’s the thing: if not for the occasional mention of how much something costs, you’d never know. People work 9-to-5 jobs, they catch a plane to go on vacations far away, they drive hither and yon and buy things in shopping centers and so on. I’m only 1/5 of the way through the book, so it’s possible that at some point the fact that nobody has a cell phone will be glaringly obvious, but as far as basic lifestyle is concerned 1969 seems a lot like 2014.

This is not the first time I have noticed that in spite of claims that the pace of change keeps accelerating, in fact most people’s lives are about the same as those of our parents when they were our age. When I have pointed this out to others, they sometimes disagree strongly: Cell phones! Computers! GPS in your car! Clumping cat litter! Sure, I’m not saying _nothing_ has changed, and indeed the Civil Rights Movement led to some major changes for a substantial number of people. But for a very large swath of society things just aren’t that different.

By contrast, consider the 50 years from 1910 to 1960.

In 1910 there were only 8 telephones per 100 people in the U.S., and they were much more common among farmers than urbanites..which makes sense when you consider that if someone in a city wanted to talk to a friend or to buy something, they could simply walk where they needed to go within a few minutes or half an hour, whereas a farmer might be hours from a store or from some of their nearby friends. The Model T had been introduced a couple of years earlier but cars were still uncommon and most people had never ridden in one. If you wanted to go somewhere, you rode a horse, or took a horse cart, or you walked (unless you and your destination were on a rail line). Broadcast radio did not exist. Movie theaters were just starting to be built at a rapid pace, to play short films and newsreels (there were no feature films yet). Most Americans lived in the countryside or in small towns; most roads were unpaved; 30% of workers were farmers. People had ice-boxes, and some guy would come around and deliver ice. Most people used outhouses, indoor plumbing being rare. Life expectancy at birth was about 50, and even someone who survived infancy would probably die by his or her mid-sixties. The U.S., though highly industrialized compared to the rest of the world, was still largely a rural, agrarian society in which most people had none of the conveniences we now consider the hallmarks of modern life.

By 1960, most people lived in cities; had indoor plumbing; had a telephone and a radio and a television and a refrigerator; more than half of households had a car; life expectancy for people who survived infancy was a decade longer than in 1910, and many infants survived ; most roads were paved; most workers worked regular hours at office or factory jobs.

In short, what life was like for a typical person in 1960 was very, very different from what life was like for a typical person in 1910. The change from 1964 to 2014 has been much less. Sure, things have changed: our telephones fit in our pockets, our televisions are in color and are 10x larger, we can access the information and entertainment of the world within seconds, etc. But as far as day to day living is concerned, things haven’t changed all that much since the days of Leave It To Beaver.

To put it another way: My grandfather grew up drawing water with a hand pump, using an outhouse, and climbing into the family’s horse-drawn carriage for trips to town; and died having been a passenger in a jet airplane and watched men walk on the face of the moon. I may yet live to see changes that big — the “singularity”, an end to senescence and death, etc. — but he definitely saw more changes in the first 49 years of his life than I have seen so far in mine.

I realize some people are going to disagree, and I have to admit that it’s hard to think of a way to quantify what I’m talking about. If someone claims the ability to access the internet wirelessly is just as important, as a lifestyle impact, as the ability to pick up a phone and talk to someone many miles away, what can I say?  How can one quantify these things?

This post is by Phil



  1. Nick says:

    One thing that has changed from 1964 to 2014 is that the Rolling Stones make a lot more money touring now…

  2. Dave says:

    This would appear to be the premise of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation.

    • Phil says:

      Wow, I can’t believe I missed Cowen’s piece, especially since I have been interested in this theme for several years. And (according to the Wikipedia article about The Great Stagnation) he even contrasts his grandmother’s experience with his own. I guess I’ll have to read it. Well, maybe my thesis isn’t controversial after all.

    • Phil says:

      Having read just the Wikipedia article about The Great Stagnation, it’s clear that Cowen is much more focused on “standard of living” than I am, and on economic growth. That is certainly related to what I’m talking about, but it’s not quite the same. I could imagine an alternative world in which we were living very different lives from those of the 1950s without necessarily having a higher standard of living or more middle-class economic growth or whatever. My thesis is much narrower than Cowen’s — he has all kinds of theories about the whys and wherefores — but maybe stronger in a way: I’m not just claiming that life isn’t a lot _better_ now for most people, I’m claiming that it’s not even very _different_.

      • Dave says:

        It sounds like you are arguing that someone from 1910 would be far more blown away by life in 1960 than someone from 1960 would be by life today. I think Cowen’s thesis of picking the low-hanging fruit fits in with that argument, even if your focus is a bit different than his.

  3. bxg says:

    I always get a bit frustrated to see unqualified life expectancy numbers. There are two phenomena that deserve to be disentangled: death rates at birth and within (say) the first year of life, versus life thereafter. We want both to improve! But the really big deltas, especially over the first 75 years of the twentieth century, came from the former. Whatever the point one is trying to make, it’s _usually_ worth separating the two.
    (This confounding becomes pernicious, not merely annoying, when – unlike here – it is used to make political points such
    as justifying a later retirement age or meaner social security.)

    • Phil says:

      I do think it would be better in general if the most common life expectancy stats excluded the first year or perhaps first five years of life; I agree that death in infancy deserves to be separated from other deaths. But as one of a variety of indicators of how much things have changed, I think it’s OK. If you want to look up the life expectancy at age 5 or something, post it in the comments and I will edit the post. It’s at least a bit harder to find those numbers, by which I mean I did two google searches and the answer wasn’t in the first few entries either time. Hey, I’m a busy guy!

      • bxg says:

        Not quite what you asked, but authoritative and your answer could be backed out:
        CDC says infant mortality (up to age 1) was 10% in 1915 and about 3% in 1960. Does not go to 1900, but most other sources I see tend to agree that 1900 was 17% (seems high but data gathering on this topic was less complete then.) So from somewhere between 10 and 17%, down to 3%, that’s a LOT of 0’s to be taken out of the overall average. ( N.b. we are now around .5%. What a change to someone expecting a child! (Same CDC article shows an arguably even more profound relative improvement in maternal mortality. Science is good! Medicine is good! The twentieth century was a good thing! Look upon these numbers and try to deny that!)

  4. Hal Varian says:

    My grandfather said the same thing to me: “When I was born people still got around by horse and buggy, but I lived to see men walk on the moon.” The lesson is, the 1900-1970 period is a tough act to follow in terms of the impact of technology on peoples’ lives.

    • bxg says:

      I don’t know the answer to this, but a thought experiment:

      a) Ask a thoughtful person in 1900 what plausible changes could dramatically change and improve society, and the average person’s lot, over the next fifty years from 1900?
      b) Ask the same today?

      I’m unimaginative but 90% of my own answers to (b) devolve to either (i) bringing poorer parts of the world up to first-world benefits, or (ii) things that can be viewed as changing what a human being really is. I’m not sure I’d be so uncreative
      100 years ago (or maybe I would.)

      • Phil says:

        bxg, interesting…let me start by free-associating a bit, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with you but just getting some ideas out there.

        Your statement puts me in mind of Henry Ford’s apocryphal statement (or rather non-statement) “if I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’.”

        It also reminds me of a book I once read about the technology of the Roman Empire. It said that 2000 years ago, at the height of the Roman Empire, the maximum speed you could ship a large load of something (wheat, marble, whatever) was around 1 mile per hour (A loaded ox cart could go a bit faster than that, on a good road, but you had to stop every now and then to feed and rest the ox). 1700 years later, the maximum speed was still about 1 mph. The point the author made was that not only had there been no change, but until the Industrial Revolution there was no reason to believe that there ever would be. The expectation that technology will change substantially on a timescale of years rather than centuries is a fairly new one.

        Ha, oh my gosh (zounds! jeepers!) I was just searching for a post I made on this blog several years ago, about a book from the 1930s that tried to predict what the future would be like, and I came across a post Andrew made a year and a half ago that has exactly the same theme as this post. I think I missed Andrew’s because he posted it on New Year’s Day and I was traveling or something, at any rate I don’t remember seeing it. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose indeed!

        If you had asked me 30 years ago what the biggest lifestyle changes would have been by now, I think I would have predicted that people would spend much less time working. Actually I still have trouble understanding why people have so little time off. Sure, I know that many of us with cushy jobs aren’t really averse to going in to the office, and would work on something even if we didn’t have to. When I took 6 months off work, eight years ago, my wife and I did some traveling but I also worked on a creek restoration project, and did some volunteer work, and some consulting. Work is good. But so is free time. It turns out upper-middle-class people would rather have a new car every few years, and more/better electronic gadgetry, and a better cable TV package, than to have an extra two or three weeks of vacation each year. To me, that’s unexpected. I might also have expected bigger changes to the workplace. I do my work with a computer rather than a pad of paper and a slide rule, but otherwise my office environment is pretty much identical to that of my father in 1967. I guess there have been some changes in that area — all those high-tech cube farms with a foosball table in the break room — but (a) some of those changes have made work less pleasant rather than more, whereas you sort of expect progress to run the other direction, and (b) the changes aren’t ubiquitous or large.

        At this point I’m just rambling, so I’ll stop.

        • When you look at what middle class families are actually spending their money on, I don’t think it’s new cars and electronic gadgetry really. Oh sure, we buy a lot of that stuff, but housing costs and childcare seem to be a bigger issue. you can’t really skimp on those easily.

          • Phil says:

            As far as individual choices I think you’re right — if you and you alone want to live differently from everyone else that might be hard — but I do think that if most people wanted to have more free time and were willing to live somewhat less extravagantly in other ways, they/we could. For example, the median new house is about twice as big as in 1950 in spite of median family size being smaller. All of that extra square footage costs money to build and to furnish and to heat and to cool. Any single person who wants to live in a smaller house might not have much luck — you have to choose from among the houses available — but as a society we have chosen to spend a lot more for housing in order to have two or three times as much space per person.

            Partly as a result of people wanting bigger houses, time spent commuting hasn’t come down much in the past 100 years…I’m just going to assert that because I recall reading it in a Scientific American article ten years ago but I don’t want to spend the time to find references. Anyway, technology has given us higher travel speeds, which you would think would lead to less daily travel time, but in fact people have chosen to live farther from work on average and thus spend just as much time in transit.

            And so on. Basically the relative value people put on material goods compared to free time is higher than I would have expected. People are different and I’m not saying there’s anything “wrong” with the choices people are making, I’m just saying that if you had asked me in high school what life would be like now, I think I would have said that technological improvements would have given us more free time….maybe we’d all be working 30-hour weeks and taking a solid month of vacation every year plus a couple of weeks sprinkled around through the rest of the year. (Actually this sounds like Europe). I would not have predicted that we would be living pretty much exactly like we were living 35 years ago, except that our television sets would be ginormous and our houses would be bigger and we would spend much of our leisure time looking at the screens of our phones. All of which says more about my ineptitude as a futurist (had I tried to be one) than about anything intrinsically interesting, so I’ll stop here.

        • Øystein says:

          Regarding time use, it seems there are different trends for different groups. The Economist had a piece a couple of months ago about how the rich and educated used to have more leisure than the poor and less educated, but now have less.

          • Corey says:

            Well, yes and no. A more nuanced assessment is that the better-off are now being remunerated for the sort of activity they used to do for free (or, rather, non-financial compensation). That is, Phil got it right when he wrote that “many of us with cushy jobs aren’t really averse to going in to the office, and would work on something even if we didn’t have to.” From your link:

            Work has come to offer the sort of pleasures that rich people used to seek in their time off. On the flip side, leisure is no longer a sign of social power. Instead it symbolises uselessness and unemployment.

            As for the less-well-off, their increased “leisure” time is probably a combination of involuntary joblessness and technology improvements that make it cheaper to enjoy otherwise unoccupied time.

            What about less educated workers? Increasing leisure time probably reflects a deterioration in their employment prospects as low-skill and manual jobs have withered… “Less educated people are not necessarily buying their way into leisure,” explains Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago. “Some of that time off work may be involuntary.” … Information technology, by opening a vast world of high-quality and cheap home entertainment, means that low-earners do not need to work as long to enjoy a reasonably satisfying leisure.

    • In 1970 my dad said about the same thing (comparing the present to my grandfather’s life – 1886-1968) when I said something about the rapid pace of change. I have thought about what he said ever since and mostly agreed that he got it right. For example, my home is practically identical to the one my parents lived in in 1970, which is hardly surprising since it was built the same year. Another example, how much alike my dad’s experience in high school is like that of the kids my wife teaches (again interestingly, the high school she teaches at was built by the PWA the same year that he graduated). There have been some pretty big changes in the way we live — can you imagine having this kind of exchange 40 years ago? And, perhaps, the singularity is near. But I somehow expect that it will occur somewhere else first in a place with a far smaller installed base of physical and human capital.

  5. Robert says:

    For some reason whenever I watch a movie set in World War II, I am always shocked or surprised by how much modern technology they seemed to have back then. I don’t know whether it was all waiting in the wings, and wartime necessity overcame people’s resistance to the new, or whether the war forced innovation, but wartime events were filmed in colour, flush toilets were being used, radios were being used, the rocket technology that landed the first man on the moon was given a huge push along by the wartime arms race, obviously the atom bomb paved the way for nuclear power etc.

  6. Thomas says:

    The best argument for our having never been to the moon (perhaps the only actually good piece of evidence, and it doesn’t of course outweigh the overwhelming evidence for our having been there) is that we didn’t keep going there, and we now have to reinvent all the technology required to try again, instead of just tweaking the operation to, say, get us to Mars. Surely, a rational society would not have devoted all those resources to reaching a place, or just to “sail on that ocean”, if it was not prepared to keep exploring and exploiting it. And surely the unit cost of each mission is dwarfed by the sunk cost of the R&D.

    By 1970 we had made a great deal of progress on the “exploration” end (as demonstrated by the moon landing), and we should have started “exploiting” the advances we had made. Now, the last four decades have, not coincidentally, been a time of increasing inequality. If we imagine that technology is really our way of saving time, we have to see the “great stagnation” as precisely the result of a concerted effort to waste the time that ought to have become available to the masses to do interesting things. I’d add the stupidity of the drug war to this; psychedelic exploration would have been a perfectly good, and at least harmless, use of our leisure time. But we’ve spent a great deal of time and money, and ruined a great many lives, trying to keep people from it.

    Norman Mailer wrote about this already in the 1950s. The next phase of capitalism, he said, would focus not on exploiting the bodies of people at work, but on exploiting the minds of people at leisure. I think the evolution of technology bears this out. Technology has not made our working lives easier, i.e., less burdensome. On the contrary, it has ensured that we are always willy-nilly at work (and always also at play). Women were “liberated” into wage slavery like the rest of us. Etc.

    At this point, there could have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who had walked on the moon. Some might even be living there. And thousand, perhaps millions, of people could have reported back on their conversations with the “machine elves” beyond “the doors of perception”. (Instead of talking earnestly about what is going on on TV.) But this would not have been as profitable (for the already wealthy) as inventing a whole series of time-wasting technologies like Facebook.

    • Steve says:

      >>”The best argument for our having never been to the moon (perhaps the only actually good piece of evidence, and it doesn’t of course outweigh the overwhelming evidence for our having been there) is that we didn’t keep going there, and we now have to reinvent all the technology required to try again, instead of just tweaking the operation to, say, get us to Mars. Surely, a rational society would not have devoted all those resources to reaching a place, or just to “sail on that ocean”, if it was not prepared to keep exploring and exploiting it. And surely the unit cost of each mission is dwarfed by the sunk cost of the R&D.”<<

      One response to this is we did exploit the technology further, in the form of thousands of ICBMs hidden in silos across the Midwest.

      • Thomas says:

        Only, I think, in the sense that proves my point. Once you’ve invented a rocket that go to the moon you can, of course, just “exploit” this by making a thousand rockets that can reach Russia in thirty minutes (or whatever it was). But that’s just mechanical reproduction. It’s not really a creative challenge. What we should do is to apply the invention in ways that let us grow. So we should have gone the moon another fifty times at least by now. In bigger and bigger ships. Leaving more and more materials there, allowing for longer and longer stays.

  7. Bob says:

    You wrote:
    Radio was just starting to come in, but most people still didn’t have a set.

    That date is about 10 to 15 years early. The first transmission of voice over radio was in 1906 by Fessenden. The first broadcast station in the US was KDKA in 1920. Similarly, broadcast operations are regarded as beginning in the UK and Canada in 1920.


    • Phil says:

      By gosh, you’re right! I dunno why I thought commercial radio started around 1910, actually I was off by about 10 years. There was apparently exactly one regular broadcast station in 1910, “San Jose Calling” (still in existence as KCBS, that’s kind of cool). I will edit the post. Thanks.

  8. Nick says:

    Maybe the real issue is that you lived long enough that you can imagine the world of 1964, whereas you can’t imagine the world of 1914, so 1914 seems alien while 1964 just seems a little different. You don’t have many of the skills that are required to deal with life in 1914, but you generally could make do in 1964. So I think it very much depends on the observer.

    For example, if you could somehow force a 90 year old to live like a teenager for a day (with urbanization, a smart phone, etc) I bet they would say that the world is crazy compared to the simple life that they grew up in, and that the changes that have occurred with the recent technological advances (computers, internet, etc) are happening much faster than when they grew up. But that’s just because they don’t have the skills for the world of 2014, any more than most of us have the skills for the world of 1914.

    • Exactly! I hadn’t updated and seen your comment before posting mine, but that’s just what I meant.

      When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the 1950s seemed like ancient history to me. And the 1920s? As Mitzi says, the world was black and white then, right?

      Perhaps not surprisingly, kids today have the same perspective. To them, the the 1990s is ancient history. A friend of mine who’s a junior high principal was getting grief from his teachers about how the kids weren’t taking 9/11 seriously and understanding its significance. My friend pointed out that it was before most of them were born; they’ve grown up in a post-9/11 USA, which feels very different in many ways to me (and not just technological progress — a different kind of paranoia than the nuclear threat we had before). I remember the same reaction from adults in the 1970s reflecting on Kennedy’s assassination. Given that it happened before I was born, it seemed like ancient history to me.

      Now that I’m older, 20 years ago seems like yesterday, not the lifetime and more ago it seems to a teenager.

      • Phil says:

        Obviously I disagree with you both or I wouldn’t have written this post! to resolve this question? How does one quantify the magnitude of change? As Bob Carpenter notes below, it is hard to say. Bob says below that everything looks ancient in 1970s movies, and I know what he means — the cars, the bell-bottoms, etc. — but as far as daily life is concerned I don’t find that to be the case at all. You can still find reruns of I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best and to me they depict lives that are not that different from lives today (except for being sitcoms, I mean). And as I mentioned, what prompted me to write this post was realizing that it had taken me a few dozen pages of reading before I recognized that a novel was set 30 years earlier than I thought. It’s hard for me to picture someone making that mistake in 1940, reading a novel set in 1910.

        • Why wouldn’t you think someone would make that mistake between 1910 and 1940? When I read Agatha Christie books, I can rarely tell when they’re set until they get to the late 1950s or so, unless they explicitly mention WW I or II.

          I find the concerns in Jane Austen books very similar to what you’d find in a modern novel. Sure, they rode in horse and buggy, but isn’t that just a slower version of the car (the same way the telephone is just a slower and more limited version of the internet)?

          • Phil says:

            Bob, if I were reading a novel that I thought was set in 1940 and a character decided to go to town so he went out to the field, called in the horse, hooked up the buggy, and set off, that would tip me off that hey, maybe this isn’t set in 1940 after all. So, no, I do not think a horse and buggy is just a slower version of a car, but even if it were, it is not in fact a car and if a character rides a horse they are not riding a car.

            And I’ve read some Agatha Christie; often a character makes a phone call or listens to the wireless or whatever. But also, Christie’s books usually feature very wealthy people and are (famously, in fact) often set in isolated settings that don’t attempt to portray ordinary life. If you read, say, Nero Wolff instead, there’s no way you would mistake them for being set in 1910.

  9. This kind of thing seems very hard to quantify. And always seems to be predicated right around the time someone was born. After all, we’ve lived through the changes since then, so they maybe don’t seem so big.

    For entertainment, we went from home to stage to recordings to radio to TV to videos/DVDs to the internet. Each step made entertainment of a wider range more accessible on demand.

    For communication, we went from speech to written language by scribes to the printing press to cheap mimeo reproduction to photocopies to the web; or from speaking to semaphores to telegraph to telephone to mobile phones with teleconferencing and data sharing. The mobile jump seems huge qualitatively to me, but how do I quantify?

    World population roughly doubled in both those periods. But how do we compare the move from 1.5 to 3 billion people to the move from 3 to 7 billion? People have been rearranging where they live the whole time, with an overall trend to cities.

    On the more qualitative side, a friend of mine’s kid was trying to read a Beverly Cleary book (American books for kids written in the 1940s or thereabouts) and found the culture so foreign (in the “what’s a telephone booth” sense) that he gave up. I’m always struck by how ancient everything seems in a movie from the 1970s.

    • Robert says:

      Beverly Cleary! We read those books at primary (elementary) school in the ’80s (which is when some of her most popular books were written, tho her first came out in 1950). You made me look her up, which I thank you for.

      As I said above, I’m continually struck by how movies set at least from WWII onwards seem so recent, even when they were made before I was born (late ’70s).
      The Graduate, for example – I also got told that ‘plastics was the future’, and other than the lack of cell phones and laptops, (and Mrs Robinson smoking! Any TV or movie where there’s a lot of smoking, even Sex and The City, always feels dated) it feels like it could have been set last week.
      For me, there’s a much bigger leap from ‘no telephone’ to ‘telephone’ (I can hear someone’s voice, and they’re nowhere to be found), compared with ‘telephone connected to wire’ to ‘telephone doesn’t require wire’.

  10. I wonder if some of the contrast between the changes of the past half-century and those of times before is due to our overall goals and patterns as a society being fairly static. Take work, as a specific example: Most working adults in the US spend about 9 hours per weekday working ( I don’t have a graph of this over the past century — it would be great to see — but certainly over 20 years it hasn’t changed much ( I doubt that it has gone down significantly over 50 years, though I’d certainly defer to many other commenters who I’m sure know far more about this than I do. Wise people in the early 20th century speculated that in the future, i.e. now, we’d all work much less, perhaps a few hours a day, liberated by technology. (See the second link above.) I’ve often wondered why this hasn’t happened.

    Returning to the point of the post: it seems that over the past decades we’re using technology to do fundamentally the same sorts of things that we used to, but more densely (e.g. communicating with many more people, via email, than was previously possible.

    The same sort of thing holds, I think, for other areas of life. We haven’t altered the structure of cities, families, etc., in the past decades in ways that are comparable to ~ a hundred years ago. This begs the question, ‘Why?’ Perhaps there’s no need to; perhaps it’s not possible; perhaps we are dissuaded by the often disastrous consequences of intentionally trying to alter the patterns of society. (I’m in the middle of “A Chinese Life” at the moment,, and like with other things that cover China’s Cultural Revolution, I can never get over how cruel and surreal it was.)

    Thanks for an interesting post!

    • But what technology wasn’t doing more of the same? Cannons vs. conventional bombs vs. nukes? Just more damage. Walking vs. riding horses vs. cars vs. planes? Just traveling further faster. Scribes vs. printing press vs. internet? Just sending data further and faster. Painting vs. film photography vs. digital? Just better representations that are easier to distribute further and faster than pigments and etching on a cave wall.

      I think you want to look at productivity as opposed to working hours, though that’s as slippery a notion as cost of living or quantifying progress. I think the answer may be that we work as much as we can, because marginal work always gets us more stuff and gives us something to do. Who wants to kick back in a rocking chair all day?

      • Phil says:

        Actually I think Raghuveer has a point here…not to say Bob doesn’t, but I think it’s true that there were qualitative changes before and now there are quantitative changes. To give just one of a zillion examples, before the telephone if you had a hankering for pizza you either made it yourself or you walked to a pizza joint (if there even were pizza joints in 1910)…eh, let’s make it Chinese food, another popular delivery item. If you wanted Chinese food you either cooked it yourself or you walked to a restaurant. After the telephone you could have someone bring food to you. That’s not just a quantitative difference in how long it took you to get the food, it’s a qualitative difference in the activities you would do during the day. Now, you might place your order online rather than on the phone, but the fundamental thing you’re doing — ordering food to be brought to your home — hasn’t changed. It’s not hard to think of other examples.

        As to why that is, that’s a good question. Barring science-fictiony things like teleportation, or uploading our consciousnesses into computers, what is it we even want? Are things qualitatively about the same because there’s no need or desire for qualitative changes, or is that the next steps we would like to take are technologically impossible (or at any rate not yet achievable)? bxg made a similar point/question earlier in the comments.

        • My point is that quantitative vs. qualitative is a matter of perspective. Ordering by telephone is certainly faster, but it’s still fundamentally having someone else make food for you.

          According to histories I could find on a brief web search, pizza delivery was more enabled by cars than by the telephone and didn’t get started until the 1940s after the war, and then picked up in the 1950s and was popularized by Dominos in the 1960s.

          I used to be able to place a standing order for milk and have it delivered to my doorstop every day (at least when I lived in Scotland in the 1980s). Now I have to go to the store myself. So I guess that’s anti-progress caused by large-scale food production and distribution.

          Let’s look at ordering books. Initially I’d have to find a scribe and an original copy and wait a while. Then I could get books from a printing press, but not much variety — probably still had to talk to those scribes. Eventually bookstores came along as books got cheaper and variety increased. At some point, I could start ordering by mail — perhaps pretty early on. Now I can order by computer. How many qualitative changes is that?

          • Phil says:

            You’re right that the difference between qualitative and quantitative isn’t well defined. I suppose one could claim that there is no qualitative difference between harvesting corn by hand and harvesting it by machine because they are both jobs that involve harvesting corn. It depends on what qualities we are talking about.

            Going out for food versus staying in seems to me to be an qualitative difference. Indeed, I would say that crossing the Atlantic in six hours in a plane is qualitatively different from crossing it in four days in a ship, because the quantitative effect is so large as to engender a qualitative change: now an American who works a regular job can take a vacation in Europe during a vacation of typical length, and that was not previously true.

            I guess you and I just disagree on how to judge some things, and that’s not surprising; indeed, I expected it. As I noted in the post, I am not sure how to quantify something as nebulous as the rate of lifestyle change.

  11. Lutz says:

    resonates with Gordon’s argument when comparing “Industrial Revolution #2” and “IR 3” (, maybe he’s more concerned with growth, but the take away message seems pretty similar to me.

  12. Dogen says:

    I think there are internal (mental) changes that are important as well as physical changes. Humans are social animals, but I think we’ve radically changed how we conceive of ourselves and our society since 1960.

    A major change that reflects both physical and mental reality is to information gathering. I remember family trips to the library and many hours spent in bookstores, not to mention reading newspapers and magazines. Those physical realities were deeply intertwined with our mental conception of information gathering–or so I claim.

    The last 20 years (since the introduction of Mosaic, a cross-platform graphical web browser that actually worked) have completely upended the earlier reality.

    I don’t really have a dog in this fight, as they say, but I do think that most of the discussion on this thread so far gives the mental/social side short shrift.

    • I have no grand conclusion to draw from this, but I’ll note that not only do I go on weekly trips to the public library with my kids, but I see a lot of friends and colleagues (especially in the 25-40 yr. old range, w/ kids), there as well. I also see a lot of (physical) novels on the desks of my graduate students. Of course, we all spend vast amounts of time electronically accessing information, as well, but I’m curious what change in “mental reality” we’re supposedly experiencing. Perhaps you mean that to gather facts we turn to electronic sources, rather than going to the library. This is true, and technically remarkable, but I don’t see this as profoundly different than looking things up in encyclopedias (e.g.); it’s just a more convenient form — we can carry the encyclopedia with us. I think I’m missing your point.

  13. Steve Sailer says:

    This meme is known as “Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?”

    My dad’s first aeronautical engineering job was designing a small part for a flying car in 1938. This flying car start-up didn’t really get off the ground, but it seemed like a totally obvious sure-thing at the time. Heinlein novels are full of flying cars — they aren’t explained in much depth, they are just used by characters without much description because … of course everybody in the future will have a flying car.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    Social change peaked between, say, 1964-1975. I was 13 in 1972 and started followed social scientists like Christopher Jencks. A lot hasn’t changed since then. Racial performance patterns are almost identical, although the size of the groups has changed, but their rank order of performance hasn’t. I grew up in Los Angeles with a lot of Asians and Chicanos so the last four decades in the rest of the country were already prefigured in LA in the 1970s. The big difference since 1972 is the emergence of Asian Indians as an important high end group in the U.S. I first noticed that there were a lot of smart Indians in the U.S. in the winter of 1981. That was a surprise. Very little else about race in the U.S. has been surprising over the last 40 years.

  15. alexf says:

    To SS, concerning “a lot of smart Indians”.

    Without endorsing or disparaging your broader racial concerns, I will say that in my career I have learned to pay very close attention to various Indian merit exams. E.g. if you got into an IIT – I’ll _always_ talk to you about a job. High place in an IIT ranking – then my (likely true) presumption is, you are probably FAR smarter than me and I’ll do what I can to hire you and bend over backwards – while remaining legal – to walk you through any immigration issues. When a country of about 1BN people has sorted itself so very carefully, and lets me pick the best – holy crap, I don’t need to even think much to see that, as a US employer, I’m being offered gold for free. So (back to your point) how can this effect _not_ show up in US demographics? For relatively small groups, it’s not a racial effect, it’s a (to some rather large extent) selection effect.

    • Rahul says:

      Broadly what you say is true. In practice that heuristic is messier due to various reasons e.g. The IITs select (at best) only on smarts. Attributes like hard work, honesty, work ethic, interpersonal skills matter a lot to performance on a real job.

      Talk to a sampling of IIT grads and a common story you’ll hear is that the hardest they worked ever was to study to get into the IITs.

  16. Igor says:


    I am coming late to this thread but instead of the great stagnation, I am seeing something else that I mentioned a while back [1]. Watch what David Valle says in The Human Genome and Individualized Medicine in this video:

    ( by the way the NIH GenomeTv YouTube channel is a gem:

    In particular what he says at 57min32s

    …First of all, acute lymphoblastic leukemia. When I was a house officer in the later ’60s and early ’70s, acute lymphoblastic leukemia was the most common form of childhood leukemia and had a 95 percent mortality rate – 95 percent mortality. Nowadays, acute lymphoblastic leukemia remains the most common chilhood leukemia. It has 95 percent survival rate, 95 percent survival/ So it went from 95 percent mortality to 95 percent survival. So what account for that change ? So actually if you look at it, the medicines that are currently being used are very similar, if not identical, to the medicines that we used all those years ago.”

    We can be jaded about what happened in the last 40 years, but from 1970 to 2010, we went from 95% mortality rate to 95% survival rate for that disease.

    [1] Predicting the Future: Randomness and Parsimony

    • Phil says:

      Igor, I agree that there have been big medical advances and some of them affect a lot of people. And there are more to come, I hope. But when it comes to the effect on lifestyle in the population as a whole, these improvements have been small compared to those caused by the introduction of sulfa drugs and penicillin, and especially the vast improvements in hygiene from providing safe drinking water and sewage systems.

  17. Megan says:

    This is a very interesting post. It makes me think there are two separate issues. The first issue is that the marginal effect of technological advances decreases over time. The effects of the printing press, indoor plumbing, penicillin, radios and typewriters is surely greater than the effect of the the internet, MRIs, washing machines and television. But a second issue is that the negative externalities of technological developments increases over time. The downside of the internet and rate of consumption of fossil fuel and nuclear weapons and mass production and distribution of assault weapons is greater than the downside of the invention of the automobile and typewriters. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. C’est vrai. Aussi, ce n’est pas vrai.

  18. Sure, the technological changes of the late twentieth century through now are small relative to those before 1960, but only straight, white men would claim that a 1969 novel depicts American life that’s not much different than today’s. I find that I almost can’t read (or re-read) many novels that were published as recently as the eighties without cringing at the frequent, unexamined sexism.

    And by this I don’t mean a depiction of the world-as-it-was, which of course was (and still is) very sexist; but the available, implicit sexist worldview of the author that is made clear by the many authorial choices. How race is dealt with tends to be much more variable and so older books are more hit-or-miss for me on this basis. Homophobia often doesn’t explicitly come up because the heteronormativity is so strong that gay people mostly don’t exist in older works written for the general audience. When LGBT characters do appear, though, the unexamined authorial bigotry can be quite startling.

    But the authorial sexism and the depicted sexism is much more uniform. This is true across media (television, film, books) and by subject matter. Some genres are worse than others, but it’s mostly always there. It’s still mostly there, of course, but it’s just so pervasive and unexamined in older works. The male gaze is much more obvious and active, female characters (and male characters, too) are much more gender stereotyped, and women are usually subordinate in most respects.

    As recently as the mid-eighties it was still relatively rare to encounter women physicians while it’s extremely common today. There were far fewer women in upper-management in business. Clerical and retails workers were much more uniformly female, while today men make up a sufficiently large portion of these groups that it’s not unexpected to encounter male receptionists or sales clerks or, in another category, nurses. Outside of blue-collar industrial work (which has radically been reduced and so I should add to my list above “professional/white-collar/academics” to the list of those who wrongly think that not much has changed) and manual labor, vocations have become notably less gendered in the last forty years. Not just “notably” and not just “noticeably”, but “obviously”. Women account for more than half of university graduates now, that’s a big change from 1970.

    I suggest that we should think carefully about the eyes through which we’re seeing this when we declare that the world of forty-five years ago doesn’t look so different from today’s. It may not be that the world hasn’t much changed, but that the eyes seeing it are very blinkered.

    • Phil says:

      To be fair (to me), I did say “…the Civil Rights Movement led to some major changes for a substantial number of people.” The role of women has changed a lot too, I agree. On the other hand, in 1910 women couldn’t even vote so there were some pretty big changes happening in the first half of the twentieth century as well.

      Basically you’re right that this post is probably more relevant to non-poor white households across the past 100 years or so than to other groups.

      • Oh, I agree that socioeconomically the first half of the twentieth century had enormous changes, too. I just don’t think that socioeconomically 1970 looks mostly like today. I don’t think that there’s been the slowdown in socioeconomic changes the same way there has been with what I’ll call the techno-economic changes that captures so many people’s attention because, you know, flying cars.

        But that’s really a product of the mid-twentieth century’s inflection point in technological change. 1940-1970 was a thirty year period of profound technologically-driven change that a couple of generations of people came to believe was the new normal. But it wasn’t. I’m only writing off the top of my head, but my intuition is that this was the follow-on change, spurred by WWI and WWII, that was enabled by the earlier nineteenth-century industrialization — this period in time was when the vast society-wide change at the industrial level became sufficiently enabling that it became transformative across all levels of the economy and subsequently culturally. It’s what happened when transportation networks and standardized industrial processes and supply chain integration made it economically possible for all these technological advances to actually be widely and cheaply utilized.

        It was the rise of middle-class consumer culture.

        And that had powerful social and cultural consequences, so those who lived during that time, or those of us who came at the end of it, tended to have our future expectations normalized by this conflation of technological and socioeconomic change. We imagined a Jetsons future of robotic housekeepers and flying cars, where the most visible and profound changes in how we live our lives were so clearly driven by technological change. But that kind and rate of change wasn’t the new normal, it was exceptional (but not unique).

        But Jetsons is a really good example of how blinkered this view of the future really was/is. You have the American nuclear family (itself mostly a historical aberration that was a consequence of the peculiar conditions of mid-twentieth century American life) that superficially seems very different because of its technological accoutrements but really just depicts a patriarchal white middle-class household with a housewife, two kids, and a robot playing the role of a black cleaning woman. And if you’re the sort of person who sees through the eyes of a middle-class white, male head-of-household, then the Jetsons minus the futuristic technology will look pretty familiar. But if you’re not that person? It will look like a place that one only sees in certain contemporary American subcultures and their related media depictions but otherwise will be quite alien and, importantly, quite hostile to oneself. To such person, those changes between 1970 and now are huge and important and there’s something disconcerting in anyone minimizing them.

        I don’t intend to offend or make you defensive — I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, white heterosexual American male myself. But I’ve had this discussion with many people who aren’t. And, believe me, to their eyes the world is quite different than it was forty-five years ago.

  19. Kathryn says:

    I think about this all the time when I’m reading and realize that the book is set way back further than I realized until they mention something very specific (like costs, or a dial-up modem…OK I’m 28 so I have a different definition of way back).

    But seriously, what are some “futuristic” things that would drastically change middle-class life? I keep thinking it will be faster travel, more like being able to live in California and commute to New York (and less like this

    My other future fantasy is some sort of machine that replaces sleep in a fraction of the time. Come on, science.

    • Daniel Gotthardt says:

      I guess most people would consider a “machine that replaces sleep in a fraction of the time” a nightmarishly dystopian thought. I’m with you, though! There’s so much to do and learn and we have so few time for it. (Yes, I realize that society would drastically change and we’d probably not like the results …)

      In accordance with Keith I’d say that things have changed drastically for many minority groups and for people outside of the “western world”. To some degree this is a counterpoint to the idea that unequality has risen in the last decade. It might be true on an economical level but for people who are not straight white main there have been some very serious changes. The life experience of different groups does not differ so much anymore. That’s at least what I would think. On the other hand you can argue that heteronormativity, racism and sexism are still at large and some older friends of mine imply that there rather is an increase of those compared to the 80s for example.

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