I am looking for examples where an old person could talk of the 'good old times' and these were objectively better than the current times. Large scale meaning it affected not just individuals or a group but, at least a large socially significant population of an entire region and long term means a scale of at least 50 years or so.

I believe this did happen between 1500 and 1650 in North and Central America. A significant proportion of the population died to infectious diseases from the Europeans, often well before the Europeans showed up in person. This lead to a general collapse of societies followed by significant reductions in living standards.

The fall of the Roman Empire, around 400 to 500 in Western Europe is probably another example.

Are there examples of this that happened after the industrial revolution?

It seems to me that since the industrial revolution the major catastrophes were either overcome relatively quickly (say WW II, by 1955 living standards in Europe were much higher than ever before) or were merely phases or slower growth (during the cold war, communist countries grew much slower than capitalist ones but living standards were still ever increasing).

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    I'm not sure the living standards in Eastern Germany were higher in 1955 than in 1939.
    – Tomas By
    Oct 22, 2020 at 7:49
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    The scale of at least 50 years in my opinion is not compatible with a post industrial revolution world. There have been several cases of widespread reduction in living standards following various events, but they all lasted a much shorter time. The industrial economy travels at such a speed that economic losses are recovered in a much shorter time than pre-industrial economies.
    – Viralk
    Oct 22, 2020 at 8:41
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    How do you factor in the effect of colonialism on the colonized: the Congo pre, during & post King Leopold, the Maori of New Zealand, indigenous Australians & indigenous Americans, north, central & south, etc.?
    – Fred
    Oct 22, 2020 at 10:03
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    Why have you excluded classed analysis? Oct 22, 2020 at 22:53
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    I was too slow, but I did edit the question on the point of class. Answers relating to the desynchronisation of post-1972 wages and productivity, or the soviet working class post 1945 in terms of relative rates of growth, or enclosure after 1770 are now viable if the question is opened. Oct 23, 2020 at 2:49

2 Answers 2


This appears to be quite eurocentric and built on assumptions of development: if we reference 'after the industrial revolution' does that mean we want to exclude large parts of Africa, Asia or Pacific colonies for much of the last 300 years? Are small Pacific islands 'industrialised' even now?

If on the other hand we just set the start date globally at 1700 or 1800 then would Rapa Nui count?

Similar but worse to first contact in America, where at least standards of living generally increased for settlers but generally decreased for natives, while on the Easter Island it just went all downhill, almost completely for much more than 50 years. The first contacts disrupted the social fabric by bringing diseases, then taking people away into slavery, then church and 'modernisataion'/'westernisation':

On Easter Island itself, by the early 1700s the peak population of approximately 12,000 that might have been attained in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had perhaps shrunk, because of possible starvation and malnutrition leading to sterility, to as few as 6,000 souls.
— Steven Roger Fischer: "Island at the End of the World The Turbulent History of Easter Island", Reaktion Books: London, 2005.

Note that this was accompanied with the toppling of the famous Moais between just 1770 and 1774. The entire 19th century is then a series of downward events leading to the almost complete desctruction of that society:

Destruction of society and population
A series of devastating events killed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.

The period 1862–88 is the second most important in Easter Island’s history. In the first nine years, approximately 94 per cent of the population perished or emigrated – one of the Pacific’s greatest human losses.

Only in 1862 did the island start to suffer a ‘relentless process of modernization by Western agencies’, which, as a result, transformed its culture and bioscape profoundly and fundamentally. The ‘Great Death’ of the 1860s had been only the final gasp of that living corpse that Easter Island’s ancient culture had already become.
— Fischer


The prime example in the recent times is communist countries where living standards of millions of people deteriorated for decades. The proof of this is the mass starvations in Soviet Union in 1921, 1932-33 and 1946 when millions of people died. Nothing on this scale happened in the Imperial Russia. Same applies to China and Cambodia/Kampuchea. I suppose that the living standards in many Eastern European countries also deteriorated with establishing of communist regimes, though this may not be so evident as in the cases of Soviet Union, China and Cambodia.

Ref. Black Book of Communism

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    Maybe the reason is that a) the Soviet Union is was exactly one communist country and b) most communist countries in Europe experienced a substantial growth in living standards until 1980 or so (from a low baseline ofc, post-WWII)
    – Jan
    Oct 22, 2020 at 13:51
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    You could also include Cuba
    – Fred
    Oct 22, 2020 at 13:59
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    "the Soviet Union experienced three major welfare crises in the first half of the twentieth century as it progressed towards sustained higher welfare in the second half of the twentieth century, and that the statistical record of this progression is remarkably good," This 'A' is incorrect in most aspects it presents & it does not answer the question as posed: "long term"/"of at least 50 years or so.". None of the incidences listed here come anywhere close to meeting that requirement. Oct 22, 2020 at 14:51
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    I could see the Soviet Union from around 1920 until 1950 as an example. I don't see what Eastern European countries post WW II have to do with it though and it spite of much slower growth than the capitalist countries, these countries did not experience a long term reduction in living standards.
    – quarague
    Oct 22, 2020 at 16:44
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    Its hard to argue that 1920 to 1950 wasn't industrialisation though. Otherwise we could talk about standard of living collapse in British workers during the long enclosure. Particularly in terms of diet calories & nutrition, diet variety, intensity of work, forms of social welfare, entertainment, security from external force. Everyone knows enclosures are nasty. The other way we could play this is talk about decline as relativity rather than absolute, because absolute declines are meaningless in value-form societies. Problem is western imperialism is the comparator, not the metropole. Oct 23, 2020 at 2:55

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