Which is better: to have been an 18-year-old in 1982, as I was, or an 18-year-old today? Polly Toynbee thinks the latter:
This is the golden age - so far. There has never been a better time to be alive in Britain than today, no generation more blessed, never such opportunity for so many. And things are getting better all the time, horizons widening, education spreading, everyone living longer, healthier, safer lives.
For me personally, though, I’m very glad I’m not an 18-year-old today.
If I were 18 today, I wouldn’t have gone to grammar school, I’d have been frustrated by an educational system that teaches to the test rather than encourages inquiry. And I’d be anticipating leaving university with £10,000 of debt.
Perhaps worst of all, grade inflation since the early 80s means I would not have been able to signal my ability to prospective employers. In my day, decent first degrees and a masters were sufficiently scarce to get me decent jobs. Not so today.
I suspect, then, that if I were 18 today, my personal chances of well-paid fulfilling work would be lower than they have been for the actual 18-year-old of 1982.
My taste is that this disadvantage is so big that it outweighs the huge benefits that 18-year-olds today have: the internet, mobile phone and iPods, and of course an extra 25 years of call options on future technological change*.
This is very much a personal thing – I’m the sort of person who would have lost out from the “education spreading” celebrated by Polly: the bright but socially awkward working-class boy. And I, more than most, benefited from the boom in the City in the mid-80s that today's 18-year-old cannot reasonably anticipate.
There is a wider issue here. On average, people are better off today than 20 years ago. But not everyone is average. Even great progress has its losers – and these are not necessarily either obvious or blameworthy for their fate.
* A caveat - one uncertainty here is the course of medical technology. It would be a bit of a bummer if they discovered the secret of immortality just after you died – or would it?