‘We’ve never had it so good’

It is easy to dwell on the negative but sociologist and researcher Jean Viard of Paris’s acclaimed Science Po says the big picture shows people have never had it so good. Mr Viard, who specialises in work and free time, told Connexion why we have a lot to be grateful for.

4 April 2017
By

Objectively, the figures for what’s improved in the world are colossal – in increasing life expectancy, numbers in education, availability of healthcare, fewer murders – even deaths from terrorist attacks.
And on a personal level we’ve never been happier – 70-85% of people report being happy in work, their local area, their private lives. But when it comes to global politics, climate change or what British or French culture might be in years to come, people worry that the world is changing too fast.

If the UK is coming out of Europe, or the Americans elected Trump, it’s because they’re afraid, so they withdraw into themselves.
It’s because we’ve never seen such a powerful technological revolution. Links between people have changed – four billion people are online. At the same time, in France 65% of children are born to unmarried mothers. We’re leaving old institutions – we live in unmarried couples, we change partners, we move home...which does bring problems. And there’s unemployment and people living alone.

But on the whole, we’ve still never lived so well. ‘Society’ may be in crisis, but not individuals. People who voted for Trump or Brexit aren’t all poor, or unemployed, or alone – they’re just people who feel their world is slipping away beneath their feet.
In the past, through religion or politics – for example, big workers’ movements – people felt they had power over the world.
Today people feel isolated and that they have no power; and it’s not entirely false.

You might well tell people: “your life expectancy is going up, you had the number of children you wanted, your children have been to school, you were looked after when you were ill… even if you were unemployed you were given money – in the history of humanity it’s never been like that before”...

But still people feel anxious and uncertain about their children’s future. For example, they want British or French culture to go on, even if in reality it’s already changed a lot.   
If you tell people the number of immigrants is the same as 50 years ago, they don’t believe it. Factory workers were mostly Arabs; building workers were mostly Spanish and Italian. But there wasn’t television or internet and people didn’t know there were all those foreigners in poor districts and shanty towns. You didn’t see the poor. We do, because our society is more of a melting pot. So we think things have hugely changed, which isn’t true, we’re just much more aware of events through the media.

"The biggest success is our increased life expectancy."

The number of murders in France has halved since we abolished the death penalty in 1981 but even so there are still two a day, so we can hear about one a day on the TV.

And people don’t know who to turn to, to understand the world, because they don’t have faith in leaders. Before, you trusted the union boss or priest, now we’re all individuals and feel there are no legitimate authority figures. So we think truth is relative. It’s not – global warming isn’t one alternative truth, you can check it with the thermometer…

The challenge is to recreate some symbolic reference points; to create security and confidence, but without going back to a world that’s closed in on itself. The far-right proposes a closed world – stronger borders, excluding those who are the wrong colour, banning books. But if we have a very open world where people feel lost, it’s not pleasant either. So what do we do to create structure?
Macron, for example, suggests a month-long service militaire. Opponents say you won’t train soldiers in a month. However,  a whole generation would have an experience of barracks life and would realise war is a possibility – to be avoided. Whereas now people think it’s not possible; though it is.

Another example is the pension de reversion [window/er’s pension]. People change partners every 8-10 years, but they are still only given to [husbands or] wives. It’s absurd because 60% of children are born outside marriage; it’s mums we need to protect, not wives. The rules need to adapt.

Consider the bank holidays. July 14 is fine, it’s part of our collective memory, but why do we need a dozen Catholic ones, but no Jewish or Muslim one? We might also want to do what the Germans do and move them to the nearest Monday – it allows people to get away, and doesn’t destabilise businesses. So we protect the symbol, but it’s in line with realities. We might build a big mosque in each regional capital, to mark the reality that today Islam is a religion of France. So we’re not only living with the symbols of the past, but symbols of today.
The biggest success of our society is to have increased life expectancy. At the time of Jesus we lived 300,000 hours, at the First World War 500,000, now 700,000. It’s huge, as the first objective of life is to be alive.

The second is to have as many children as one wants. And in France we’re a very balanced society because we’re the only Euro­pean country with two children per woman, apart from Ireland where they oppose contraception.
Politicians don’t tell people this: you are having two children per woman, you’re gaining three hours of life expectancy a day, thanks to electricity you spend three hours a day less in bed than your ancestors… they are positive changes in human life.

Take the debate about retirement. I told the government – say they can expect to spend 10% of their life at work. It’s normal if you live longer, you work a bit longer. When they fought for retirement at 60, life expectancy was 65; it was about not dying at work.
If someone dies aged 50 it’s a scandal. We feel we have the right to all the ages, which wasn’t so before. Until the First World War there were few old women; it’s thanks to medicine. The risk of dying giving birth was much higher than a soldier going to war.

People make love 8,000 times on average – before 1914 it was 1,000. People had six to eight children; we have two. Our private lives, love lives, have taken on a huge importance and that’s an indicator of happiness.
Everyone’s convinced ‘it was better before’.  I tell people: “before, half of you would be dead, and you couldn’t listen to my talk”.

Many people today live lives that are rich – I don’t just mean financially, but in different foods and travels, of culture and love and meetings. We have to work to make sure everyone benefits but in a city like Paris, you can cycle, enjoy public gardens, there’s culture in the street…  Life itself is exciting, which wasn’t necessarily the case 50 years ago.

Get news, views and information from France