At the end of 2016, the common wisdom was that it was a terrible year. I’ve given it a month to settle, and I haven’t seen too many people retract that judgement.
As far as I can tell, 2016 was condemned for two reasons:
- Certain celebrities died.
- Unpopular political changes were made.
However, I’m concerned that these reactions make us forget the number of things that improve in this world from year to year.
Take for example this opinion piece in Washington Post.
Or consider some charts of global improvements in the last couple of hundred years.
Naturally, those charts won’t include the political changes of the last year, and I agree some of those changes are disturbing. But political changes really aren’t my focus here. I don’t think we’ve suddenly been dealt a new world with no connection to the past. In some things we see a step back, but I would suggest the step back is more 50 years than 500 years.
Where the political changes got reactions of anger, fear, or joy (depending on perspective), the deaths of celebrities brought outpourings of sorrow and reminiscence. And I think the grief showed a few different responses to those celebrities:
- Most were remembered and honoured for the impact they had on a particular person’s life, for key moments and experiences.
- Some were mourned because of the sense of potential lost. What could they have done if they had had an extra two, five, or twenty years?
- Some were mourned because of the loss of a link to the past. Their greatest achievements were twenty or thirty years ago, but while they were alive the link was still there.
Perhaps it is somewhat generational: those who have an influence on us are often older than us, and as they age they face increasing mortality rates. But for me, the impact wasn’t so severe. Quite a few of those celebrities were people I had hardly heard of before their death. Maybe I’m of the wrong generation to have childhood idols dying. But more likely I’m just generationally displaced: many of the composers and writers I look to died before I was born.
Being not very culturally aware myself, I looked through a long list of “culturally important figures” who died in 2016. The majority of the people in that list were 60 or over. Quite a few were over 80, and at least one over 100. From my young perspective, these aren’t exactly young people. In fact, some of them were best known for things they did before I was born. I’m not suggesting that death at 80 is pleasanter than death at 60 or 40, but I do think looking back to the days of long ago can give a little perspective. So here are some cultural icons I value who died young.
My first example is Schubert. Knowing something of how much music he had produced, I had no idea that he died young, but he was actually only 31 when he died. Continuing the theme of dying young, there’s Chopin (39). Mendelssohn (38). Gershwin (38). Mozart (35). How much could any of these composers have produced if they had had more time?
Obviously that list is cherry-picked. Even in that era, most great composers would have reached 40. Apart from anything else, it takes time to establish yourself as a great. Music has had its child prodigies, but they’re not the norm.
However, if you want a slightly less selective list, I can easily add Tchaikovsky (53) or Beethoven (56). Both of them impress me with what they achieved with a lifespan shorter than the normal lifespan today. I did find some composers in the 19th century I appreciate who reached their sixties. For example, Dvořák (62). Grieg (64). Wagner (69). But still not as many as I would find in a list of cultural heroes dying in 2016.
Of the first dozen or so of my favourite composers checked, Liszt was the only one I found who was over 70 (he was 74). Later I found others, but most of them spent a significant part of their life in the twentieth century, much closer to our age of higher life expectancy. Take for example Saint-Saëns, 86 (who should really have been in my first dozen). Sibelius (91). Khachaturian (74). Stravinsky (88).
Moving on to writers, how about Charles Dickens? Known for so many great novels, surely he can’t have been that young? Well, as it turns out, he was only 58. His final completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, is brilliant (in fact, I think it could be his best - it’s certainly up there). I’ve never read his uncompleted last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but I’m told it is also very good. Who knows what he could have produced if he lived to 80?
So, who else could I find? Robert Louis Stephenson was 44. A little further back in time, Jane Austen was 41. Shakespeare was 52. And coming back to our current political climate, George Orwell was a child of the twentieth century and died at 46. Each of them very different writers, but what could they have produced with more time?
In the realm of entertainers, one of my favourite comedians is Tony Hancock. He was dead at age 44, though the sorrow I feel is more at a life destroyed than at any great potential for future work.
On the celebrity front, 2016 left me fairly unmoved: few celebrities that I cared about died. But it’s not about point-scoring: “I had three more key celebrities die than you, so it was a worse year for me”. To me the bigger issue is our persistent feeling that the world is getting worse when by many objective measures it is getting better.
In the case of celebrities, we could produce a long list of celebrities over the centuries whose life was cut unfortunately short. But what age do you put the cut-off at? I do think it would be more common to find younger ages in the 1800s and 1900s than in the 2000s.
Over the last hundred years, Australia’s average life expectancy has increased from around 60 to over 80. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every single person will live to 80. Some will pass it, and many will fall short. But I think the increase is a pretty impressive achievement.
Maybe a result of this increase is that we find it harder to deal with early death, since it becomes less common? Or maybe we just adjust to a “new normal” and suddenly 60 or even 70 becomes an early death?
Personally, I think we should be thankful for the higher lifespans and better health-care of our current day. Some of the life expectancy increase is due to reduced infant mortality, but that’s not the only area that has changed. I get the impression that back in the day it was much more common for people in my age group to die of common diseases. Often they would leave behind orphans or single parent families struggling to make ends meet. And the diseases they died of are diseases that in Australia today we either don’t contract, or are able to just brush off. Vaccinations, antibiotics, improved surgical practices - the list of improvements could go on.
I just don’t think it’s possible to make a good case for 2016 being the worst year ever. It’s not even close.
So what could we compare it with? To me, one obvious point of comparison is to go back a hundred years: Would we really want to swap 2016 for 1916?
This isn’t a comparison I’ve seen done, so that will be my next post (edit: here)