Thursday 19 September 2019

Population rise is proof positive we shouldn't be so pessimistic

US President Barack Obama has outlined the positives in our pessimistic times Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
US President Barack Obama has outlined the positives in our pessimistic times Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

If you have been keeping up with the stories that have made the headlines over the past 12 months, you'll probably agree that 2016 has been a year to forget. At home and abroad, many bad things have happened. An ominous sense about the state of the world has heightened over the course of 2016. There is more reason now to believe that the centre isn't holding than there was at the beginning of the year.

But if dark clouds have gathered, there have also been plenty of positives in 2016. As we enter the festive season, it is worth accentuating these. Here are six happy trends from home and abroad that give cause for cheer about the state of the world as Christmas approaches.

Population has long been an important indicator of national vitality. Preliminary results released for this year's census showed the Republic's population surging over the past five years since the last census was taken in 2011. The population of the 26 counties is now back to where it was in the 1850s, just after the Famine but before more than a century of almost uninterrupted population decline up to the early 1960s.

The 2016 census showed a population that was bigger than previously forecast, in large part due to net migration being lower than expected.

Whether people migrate from and to a country depends to a considerable degree on how its economy is faring. Measuring the performance of the Irish economy has become ever more difficult - 2016 saw the birth of 'leprechaun economics' after the CSO revised 2015 GDP by a staggering 26pc last summer.

But behind the statistical fog certainly lies an economic recovery. Consumer spending - a component of GDP not directly affected by multinationals - is expected to have grown solidly again in 2016, even if there are some questions about the momentum of the recovery in the second half of the year.

Employment is the most reliable indicator of the Irish economy's health. And here there was only positive news in 2016. The number at work surpassed the two million mark in the middle of the year. Every region in the country experienced year-on-year employment growth, according to the latest quarterly statistics, showing that the recovery is not exclusive to Dublin. Monthly unemployment in November was 7.3pc, now less than half the rate at its peak in 2012. Both jobs and joblessness measures have some way to improve before they reach their pre-crash levels, but the trends continued to move in the right direction in 2016.

As a small, open economy, it is always in Ireland's interests to keep abreast of what is going on abroad. So it's worthwhile taking a broader look at global trends and asking whether the world is becoming a better or worse place.

Most people, especially in developed countries, are pessimistic about the state of their countries and the wider world, according to opinion polls. While there is certainly much to feel gloomy about, the sense of woe is overdone and is itself contributing to a deteriorating political environment, particularly in the Western world.

"We are fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history…" outgoing US President Barack Obama said in April. "That may surprise young people who are watching TV or looking at your phones and it seems like only bad news comes through every day. But consider that it's been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies."

There is much evidence to back his claims. Take life expectancy. According to the World Health Organisation, the average lifespan of human beings around the globe increased by five years between 2000 and 2015. This is on the back of a sustained rise in the past century, when global life expectancy doubled.

Part of this can be explained by the dramatic fall in the proportion of children who never make it out of childhood, a trend in evidence even in the poorest parts of the world as well as the richest (Ireland is a good example: infant mortality was 81 per 1,000 babies born in 1911; today it is 3.7).

If the world is becoming healthier, it is also becoming better educated. A record 85pc of the planet's population is now estimated to be able to read and the number of years in education is increasing almost everywhere. A world where billions have access to education should be a world where more problems can be solved.

That can already be seen in the shrinking proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty. In less than four decades it has declined massively - from 44pc in 1981 to 10pc in 2015. There is no reason to believe that the trend did not continue in 2016, or that it will continue in the years to come.

The World Bank defines those living in extreme poverty where they survive on less than $1.90 a day, adjusting for each country's cost of living. That's a measly amount, and 10pc of the world's population is still about 700 million people. But considering a majority of the world was estimated to be living on such resources in the 1950s (and a majority of now developed countries in the 19th century), the fall of extreme poverty is undoubtedly a good news story.

The events of the past few months may well have left you pessimistic about where the world is going. But in a world that is getting healthier, wealthier and better educated, there is still plenty of reason for cautious optimism about humanity's prospects as the year draws to a close.

Irish Independent

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