by Max Roser
based on our work at www.OurWorldInData.org
A life in poor health, in material conditions of extreme poverty, and with little opportunity for education was the life that almost all our ancestors lived in. This was no one’s fault in particular, these are simply the living conditions that we always live in. Certainly it is not the fault of the individual people who grow up in these poor conditions. If you live in a society of subsistence farmers there is no way for you to leave poverty, if you live in a society where infectious diseases are prevalent you are not able to protect yourself from it, and if there is no educational system that allows you to dedicate years of your life to learning how to read, write and understand the world then you won’t learn it. Poor living conditions cannot be changed individually, poor living conditions can only change for entire societies. If we are thinking about what is possible in the future we are thinking about what is possible for our children. For children even more than for adults it is true that the chances for your life depend very little about what you can do for yourself and very much on the circumstances that you are born in. This is the question that I am asking in this slide show: How did the conditions that children were born into change over the last decades and what can we hope for for our children? The way I want to look at this is by focussing how the circumstances in which children find themselves allow them to develop their potential. In societies with poor health their potential is cut short by debilitating diseases or in the worst cases an early death, in poverty children lack the material means and freedom from work to develop, and without access to education they lack the input required to learn and flourish. The focus of children is also a helpful perspective because if children develop well it has benefits for all of us (link to a new video I made with 'Kurz Gesagt'). Children that never develop their full potential keep away from all of us what otherwise might be – no one will ever enjoy what their creativity could enable them to do, not the children themselves and not anyone else.
The question that this presentation asked was ’What is hindering young people to reach their potential?’ and we saw a large positive development over the last two centuries. But at the same time it is very clear from looking at the data and the projections that we are facing large challenges – key development goals will not be met without a substantial improvement of past trajectories. But the rewards from these efforts would be large. Most importantly for the children of the next generation. But also for everyone else as their creativity and work would benefit everyone in the world, those currently in extreme poverty and those in the well-off places elsewhere. How many innovators could the world see if all children had chances to realize their potential? There are likely many Einsteins and Bill Gates living in poor villages today and it is about the change in living conditions which will decide whether they can reach their potential or whether they remain stuck in bad health, poverty, and without access to education.