“We survived”

You see a lot of this: “we survived”. It’s called “survivorship bias”, and it’s the error of focusing on those who got past an event while ignoring those who did not. It’s VERY common with people who want to make out “the good old days” were great.

The classic example is in war, of course. You’ll have seen this image on various Twitter threads, from WW2 research: The bullet holes on returning aircraft show areas where a plane could take damage and still fly well enough to return safely to base. Engineers were smart enough to then reinforce the other bits. Clever engineers!

So how about our survivor of poverty? Well we all know that mortality rates for children under 5 have fallen dramatically, as you can see from this graph.

In 1800 in Britain, a whopping 329 children failed to survive their first five years of life. Today that number is four. And the progress is global: since 1990, the number of child deaths per 1000 has fallen from 93 to 37 – still far too high, but a huge improvement in a short space of time.

What does this have to do with Sylvia and her indoor toilets? Well, as you can see in the graph above child mortality rates declined massively from 1900 – 228 per 1000 – to 1950 (44). So those post-1950 boomer births benefitted massively from improved sanitation, vaccination, and living conditions. When Harold MacMillan said in 1957 “you’ve never had it so good”, he wasn’t lying.

But this dramatic fall between 1900 and 1950 masks a further one since: the child mortality rate in the UK is now… 4. Since 1950, we have reduced the number of children dying in early childhood by 90%.

So yes, Sylvia remembers a happy, healthy childhood. But that’s partly because if weren’t healthy you were much less likely to survive to the age of five. And of course, you aren’t around to talk about it today.

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