The timing of your book must have worried you — you argue that the world is getting better and we’re in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic.
I have two kids and one is heading toward 14. I talk to her and her friends about the state of the world, and they are pretty depressed. They think things are going badly, and they’ve got good reasons for that. These are kids who have been to the Women’s March, who have been taking part of Black Lives Matter protests. They’re living through a pandemic.
But I do think they are missing part of the story. Things are far from perfect. But things are getting better, and there’s reason for optimism. And it’s important they hear this message because they are the generation that’s going to fix the problems that remain.
Alessia: What influenced your optimism about the world?
I spent a lot of my life at the World Bank, which is a big international bureaucracy that tries to improve the quality of life.
I was doing research on economic growth — how much money people had worldwide — and was it going up or down. When I was researching in the 1990s, the picture was pretty grim. If you look at Africa, for example, people were pretty much as poor [in terms of their daily income] as they were in the 1960s, when the countries became independent from colonial rule from the U.K. and France and so on. But if you looked at other measures, they were doing better. The chances of a child dying in the first five years of life were going down dramatically. Many poor people were now in school.
That exercise made me think there’s more to the story than income. And that led to a long-term interest in other measures of what’s a good life. Having money is important, but it’s not the only part of a good life.
Alessia: Being a cis white man, do you think you might be pulling your optimism from personal experience more than reality?
That’s a fair question. I am so much more privileged than the average citizen of Earth. But my personal experience can tell me almost nothing about the state of the world.
That’s why I go to the data. Statistics aren’t always the most fascinating thing. But they are a more reliable guide of how the world is doing.
Zoe: Do you believe the world will continue to improve at this steady rate, or do you think there will be a point where things will change in the other direction?
There are all sorts of ways things could go horribly wrong. There could be a nuclear war. Greenland’s ice sheets could fall off all at once, and the sea level goes up. There could be a worse pandemic. These are things we should be focusing on more, because if they do happen they could be absolutely catastrophic. But they’re hopefully not likely.
I think the likeliest thing to happen is that progress will continue. Nearly every kid will get the opportunity to grow up because they won’t die in childhood. Nearly every child will be in school for a few years. We’ll probably see a little less war. And the kind of grinding poverty that was the lot of most of humanity for most of history will pretty much go away everywhere. Your generation is the largest probably ever. And the thing that creates progress is people.
Is that why you refer to kids born after 2000 as the “greatest generation?”
The 2.72 billion people born worldwide between 2001 and 2020 are the healthiest and the most educated. They’ve grown up with the greatest sense of rights being important of any generation. They will have more technologies to achieve more things than ever before. I think they are shaping up to be pretty darn fantastic.
Alessia: Do you think our generation is too sensitive about social justice issues? Or do you see us as responsive or empathetic leaders?
I think you’re more sensitive and that’s good. There are things you worry about that frankly, when I was your age, I didn’t think about at all. There are concerns you have about, among other things, inequality but also elements of gender identity. It’s a sign of progress.
Alessia: Do you think people are hardwired to assume the worst when it comes to grand social issues rather than assume the best?
People are definitely hardwired in lots of ways. If you survey people and ask them: What’s going on regarding crime in your neighborhood? In your city? In the country? On average, if you took a countrywide sample, people think the crime isn’t too much of a problem in their neighborhood. They think it’s more of a problem in their city and a huge problem in the nation. You can do the same question with happiness. How happy are you on a scale from 1 to 10? How happy is the average American?
We do seem to be hardwired to think that we are doing better [in our own lives] than most other people [in the rest of the world]. And that’s a problem. It leads to people being depressed about the state of the world and less optimistic about how their kids are going to do [in the world in the future].
Zoe: Are there any global issues that will be taken more seriously in the future?
I’m going to kick it back to you. What do you think will be important 20 years from now?
Zoe: If there’s another pandemic like this one, that might be something we take more seriously — especially with sanitation, masks and vaccinations.
I think here will be more viewpoints in our education, because right now in school, especially with history, it’s taught through the point of the victor.