“We’re going to hell in a handcart.” That’s the cry of the deteriorationists who believe everything has got worse: the planet is overheating, population numbers are exploding, communities are being lost; liberal democracy is creaking on its foundations, and for twentysomethings prospects are looking seriously grim: they’re leaving university with substantial debts, little hope of finding a job and next to no chance of getting on the property ladder. Meanwhile, children no longer romp outside and explore the world but fester indoors with their iPads posting selfies and surfing internet porn. As for culture, both classical and pop music pale in comparison to the heights reached in the past. Art has become a corporate fetish, and the figure our times now exalt is no longer the artist or the scientist but the celebrity.
But which age, argue the optimists, would these people prefer to live in? The age when they burnt witches? When women were chattels? When disease and agony could not be addressed by antibiotics and anaesthetics? Anyone who isn’t a killjoy should recognise that now is the golden age: we are freer, richer, warmer, healthier, and more tolerant of differences than we’ve ever been in history. The internet has brought the world to our finger tips, cheap travel has allowed us to roam the earth and almost everything – good food, entertainment, music – that was once limited to the very rich is available to most of us in infinite variety.