When, exactly, were the “good old days”?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
June 05, 2019, 11:00 PM GMT+0

How many decades back do you have to go before people no longer believe things were better then?

A common topic for polling is whether life was better at a certain point in the past: the 50s, the 60s, the 70s... These surveys invariably find that many believe in the concept of “the good old days”.

Normally, these surveys compare today with only one other point in time. This led us to question: how far back do you have to go before people stop believing the past was better than the present?

Our data reveals that between 31% and 41% of Britons believe that life was better in every past decade from the 2000s all the way back to the 60s than it is now.

This figure then drops to just 16% for the 1950s, and again to only 4% for the 1940s. It then remains at about this level for all older decades, as well as the 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.

The 1990s is the period in time Britons are most nostalgic for. Fully 41% of people believe the nineties to have been better than today – by contrast, only about half as many people (23%) think we have it equally as good now, with a similar proportion (21%) thinking that the current day is better.

One in three (35%) think that the 2000s were better than today. An identical proportion believe things were as good in the last decade as they are now – only 16% say 2019 is better than the noughties.

Britons are split on the sixties and seventies, though. While around a third (31% to 32%) believe life to have been better back in those days, they are matched by the 32% to 33% who think life is better now. A further 7% to 10% think the 1960s and 1970s are about as good as the current day.

People tend to think life was better when they were young

Unsurprisingly, different generations have different preferences, with the common theme being that they are most likely to think things were better when they were young.

A majority of people in their thirties (57%), as well as 51% of those in their forties, harken back to the 1990s – a time when they themselves would have been in childhood to their twenties – saying that the final decade of the twentieth century was better than the current era. By contrast, only 35% of Brits aged under 30 say the same – as do 29% of those aged 60.

Instead, almost half of Brits aged 60 and above (48%) think that the 1960s were better than today (a time when 60 to 80 year olds would have been in their childhood to twenties) with a similar number saying the same of the 1970s.