The Pace of Change is Slow in America
Wooden utility poles in America are inspected every 10 years to make sure they haven’t rotted. The workers leave behind a metal tag with the year of the inspection. I enjoy stopping and looking at the phone poles in an area to find the oldest tags. Some tags go back to the 1940s.
National Band and Tag Company
Since WWII, rich White-controlled countries have changed very little in relative terms.1 These countries are often lumped into a group called “the West.” It may feel hard to imagine given how much has changed in the West, but the scale and speed of change experienced in the rest of the world is…bigger. There are many reasons for this.
Many countries became politically independent or had a political revolution since WWII. The USA’s political rulebook - the constitution - is from 1788.
Europe’s population went up by 1.5x since WWII. America’s population increased by 2x, mostly through immigration. But world population increased by more than 3x.
In 1960, seventy of every hundred Americans already lived in urban areas. Now, it’s gone from 70 to 89, a 27% increase. In the world, urbanization has increased from 34 to 57 of every hundred people, a 68% increase. Layered on top of differences in population growth, cities in the West have grown much slower than cities in the rest of the world. In 1950, New York and London were the largest cities in the world. Today, neither of those cities make the top ten.
GDP, or gross domestic product, is the total production of a country. So GDP growth rates are a decent proxy for how quickly the productivity of workers and the conditions they’re working in have changed. In Europe and USA, GDP has increased by 2 or 3x per worker since 1960. Where most of the world population lives, in Asia, the change is closer to 6x since 1960. Africa and Latin America have had slower GDP growth, unfortunately. (Wikipedia)
This one is paradoxical. Technological innovation drives change, and the West has led the development of most technologies. Cars, electronics, the internet, new medicines - the West leads in all these areas.2 But even if technology is developed in the West, its application is most often more impactful elsewhere.
Because the technologies being replaced are more modern in the West, new technology’s impact is only incremental. In America, cell phones got rid of wires; in Africa, cell phones brought phones. Mobile payments are only a small change from using credit cards in the US so they’ve been slow to catch on; in China, mobile payments mostly replaced cash transactions and have made a huge impact.
The West and now other rich countries offer the most comfortable places to live and lead many social and technological trends. But if you’re interested in learning about and being involved with major social change, look to the “developing” world.
I’m referring to Europe and countries whose current residents mostly descend from European colonizers. That’s USA, Canada, Australia, etc. One could certainly argue about which countries are included here. ↩
East Asia is starting to take more leadership today, but I’m talking about history since WWII. ↩