The long view: crime is down and life expectancy is up

In times of crisis, it’s understandable that people feel life is becoming ever-worse. Taking the long view can help us gain a greater perspective and understand the positive long-term trends that form our world.

The long view: crime is down and life expectancy is up
There's plenty to be optimistic about. Photo: Getty Images

We spoke to two expert researchers at Stockholm University to dig a little deeper into the state of the world. Given the conflict in Ukraine, is the future really all doom and gloom?

Turns out, not quite. For example, life expectancy – that most fundamental of quality of life indicators – is on a determinedly upward long-term trajectory as people across the globe live longer and longer.

And it’s not just life expectancy that is confounding our preconceptions. Crime is on a downward spiral, more women are becoming educated and enjoying careers, rates of infant mortality are falling, and population growth is set to plateau. Even extreme poverty – the rate of which has sadly increased by 100 million people during the pandemic – had been plummeting down for decades until Covid-19 intervened.

Once the aftershocks of the pandemic have subsided, rates of extreme poverty will once again build downward momentum. The world, in spite of the current rather worrying geopolitical events as well as the last thrashings of the tail-end of Covid-19, is set to continue to become a better place to live for all its inhabitants.

Crime rates? Going down?

Still, the ever-hungry 24 hours news cycle demands fresh outrage and it’s this, along with the insistence of every generation that their childhood was the most glorious passage of world history, that feeds our belief that the world is falling apart.

Take crime. Crime’s up, surely? Everyone knows that.

However, according to Olof Bäckman, professor of criminology at Stockholm University, crime rates have been falling for decades. 

“The general crime rate in Sweden, and across most Western countries, has been going down since at least the 1990s. In Europe, that reduction is driven by reducing rates of property theft,” says Bäckman.

“It’s just very obvious that young men have stopped stealing so much stuff,” he says. “That’s the main driver for the declining crime rates in Sweden and in Europe.”

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It’s an eye-catching statement. “Young men have stopped stealing stuff.” But why?

“First, things are harder to steal. For example, car security is now much more effective. And also, alcohol is a major factor in crime,” says Bäckman.

“The younger generation now don’t drink as much as previous generations. When Sweden entered the EU, the prognosis was that the whole country would turn into alcoholics because we’d have access to more alcohol. But that didn’t happen. The drinking pattern changed. Binge-drinking as part of youth culture has collapsed and it’s binge drinking which is linked to crime.”

As part of his research, Bäckman interviewed many teenagers about alcohol and alcohol consumption.

Martin Kolk, left, and Olof Bäckman, from Stockholm University

Video games are cooler than alcohol

“In their world it’s not cool if you drink so much that you puke. They know the people in the neighborhood or at school who drink too much, and they are not the coolest guys like they were for older generations. Something has happened. Something has changed. Part of the reason is that kids sit home playing video games and chatting on the internet. They’re not out as much and spending time in bars. We used to have a strong culture of getting drunk on Friday and Saturday nights but that is no longer part of most young mens’ lives.”

The dramatic life expectancy increases in almost all low income and middle-income countries in the world is also much unheralded news.

“We’ve seen a very big improvement in life expectancy in almost all the low- and middle-income countries in the world,” says Martin Kolk, a researcher and associate professor in the sociology department at Stockholm University. 

“Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia now have much higher life expectancy than rich Western countries did 30 or 40 years ago. Generally poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa have also seen very rapid life expectancy increases.”

Asia overtaking Europe

Some once-poor Asian countries have even overtaken traditionally rich Western countries in regards to life expectancy. “South Korea has a higher life expectancy than almost all Western countries, even though it was a very poor society only 50 years ago,” says Kolk.

The average life expectancy of South Korean babies born in 2020 last reached 83.5 years, more than seven years longer than two decades ago and a whopping 21.2 years longer than in 1970.

“It used to be that only very rich countries had high life expectancy, but now we increasingly see that even moderately rich and quite poor countries also have much higher life expectancy.”

So to what do we owe this good news?

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“Cheap, simple medicine has a very dramatic effect on population health when it’s implemented. Even inexpensive over-the-counter antibiotics that you can access in any sub-Saharan African city, is an important cause of improvement in life expectancy as well as infant mortality.”

But it’s also, certainly in South Korea’s case, due to an uptick in economic growth. And this development has also led to lower fertility rates and a slowdown in population growth, because women are having fewer children as they participate more in the economy.

“It’s probably quite similar to the processes that took place in Western countries in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when increasing economic participation, due to educational improvement and a rise in the number of females in education and employment, led to smaller families.”

More women at work is making the world a better place. Photo: Getty Images

Listen to the kids

This leads to a kind of virtuous cycle, where events reinforce themselves through a feedback loop. “When you have a higher female labour force participation,” says Martin, “and a higher number of women in education, then you have women having fewer children, and women having fewer children means it’s easier for them to be in the labour force and easier for them to be in education and so on.”

And this all means that population growth is slowing down, although it might be 80 years or so before growth plateaus.

But it’s good news nonetheless, albeit good news that might not always be reported because it doesn’t fit with the narrative that the world is going to hell in a handcart.

Of course, there is the existential threat of climate change. Here there is no easy solution, although many of the leading climate scientists believe that it’s still possible to keep the global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees this century.

While we can’t avoid climate change there’s still a chance we can mitigate it and adapt.

There is hope, and with an increasingly motivated environmentally-focused youth movement, together with global events like Cop26, countries, cities, organisations and businesses are now pivoting and moving more rapidly (and in a more organised way), on climate action. 

However, climate aside, there’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequality and levels of extreme poverty in some countries. 

There is, however, one more little morsel of positivity to which to cling.

According to a new international survey of more than 21,000 children and adults by UNICEF and Gallup, children and young people are nearly 50 per cent more likely than older people to believe that the world is becoming a better place.

Maybe it’s time we listened to the children.

Stockholm University is one of the top 50 universities in Europe and offers a wide range of programmes in English. Click here to find out more about studying in the capital of Scandinavia.

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Atchoo! How to tackle the pollen allergy season in Sweden

Allergy sufferers will be less than thrilled to learn the pollen season is already here. To make your life easier, The Local has some handy tips for how to make it through the ordeal.

Atchoo! How to tackle the pollen allergy season in Sweden
It's that time of the year again. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Plan ahead

Planning won’t eliminate your suffering but it could go a long way towards reducing it.

Check the local pollen forecast on websites Pollenkoll or Pollenrapporten to find out well in advance when the worst days are likely to be, and if it’s possible to avoid being outdoors on those days, consider taking shelter.

Hot, windy days in particular are not your friend, as it’s then that the most pollen spreads in the air, while still, wet and cloudy days tend to be the most tolerable. But some people are already reporting having issues with pollen, despite there still being snow on the ground in lots of places in Sweden.

Staying indoors just because there’s a lot of pollen in the air may not be feasible of course, so perhaps it’s more realistic to limit your outdoor time to early mornings and late evenings on those days (dew binds to pollen in the mornings and evenings, reducing the amount in the air). You could also wear a mask with a pollen filter if you need to go out during peak pollen times.

Above all, use the pollen forecasts to make sure that you start taking any medication with enough time in advance for it to kick in properly.

The Swedish names for the most common plants and trees causing pollen allergies are björk (birch), gräs (grass), gråbo (mugwort/wormwood), hassel (hazel), al (alder) and ek (oak).

Find the right medication

There is a long list of non-prescription medication available in Sweden that can be used to alleviate the symptoms of a pollen allergy.

The most common starting point is antihistamine tablets, but depending on the symptoms you may also want to use Cortisone nasal spray for congestion, and eye drops containing Chromones for runny eyes.

Medication won’t completely eliminate your symptoms, but it should ease them. If that doesn’t happen, it could be time to speak to a doctor. They can prescribe something stronger – including a course of anti-allergy vaccinations if they see fit – and perhaps more importantly test you to make sure it’s a pollen allergy you have in the first place and not something else (or a combination).

Good housekeeping

For allergy sufferers a clean house is a happier house, so make sure that’s the case as much as possible. Some vacuum cleaners have HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters that catch pollen and other particles, while changing bed sheets regularly will contribute to a better night’s sleep.

Simple acts like shutting vents when the pollen level is high and keeping your bedroom door closed during the day to minimise the spread of pollen from the rest of the house are also worthwhile. Keeping flowers indoors should be avoided, and if you have a garden, resist the temptation to cut the lawn, which increases the pollen in the air.

Adapt your routine

When there’s a high pollen count, make sure to take a shower, wash your hair, and immediately change your clothes when you come home – all of which should get rid of any pollen hanging around. It’s also best to dry your clothing indoors rather than outside, so it picks up less of the irritating particles.

If you have a pet, brush them regularly and in particular when they come indoors from the wider world. It’s also a good idea to get your exercise fix indoors rather than out when pollen levels are particularly high.

It’s thought that some foods can trigger symptoms in those who have pollen allergies (a phenomenon known as cross-reactions), with certain fruit and herbs some of the culprits, so consider reducing your intake of them – especially in combination – if you notice it triggering your allergy when the pollen season is at its worst.

Persistent congestion can be brutal and it it’s really bad, rinsing your nose with a saline solution can provide some quick relief – doing so before bed may aid sleep.

Finally, drinking plenty of water is a must, and hot fluids are one way of doing that while also benefiting from the clearing effects of steam, which will ease your blocked nose and breathing.

Article written in 2018 and updated in 2022.