The myth of a golden age

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

There is a human tendency to look for a golden age when life was better. The first recorded example of this “it’s not like it used to be” attitude was about 700 BCE, when Greek philosophers and poets – obviously a group of grumpy old men – railed against the shallowness of their contemporaries’ thinking and behaviour.

Of course, such nostalgia for a bygone age usually glosses over the primitive healthcare and the social intolerance. In most ages past, a minority of the population would have been suffering severe toothache at any time.

Those who yearn for a historical golden age in the US seem to consistently place themselves as well-off, well-educated, snappy-dressing, wisecracking, white northerners with a dry Martini (just think of Mad Men). They never imagine themselves as poor, southern African-Americans or single, pregnant, young women. So, I have my doubts about those supposed golden ages and how much worse everything is today.

Though the cognitive scientist and psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that the world is much less violent than it used to be, his analysis that we may be evolving beyond war and conflict has been seriously criticised.

The whole picture has to take in Chairman Mao’s internal repression in China, which left 70 million people dead, and Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia, which resulted in the loss of 25% of the population, terrorist attacks by Isis and other groups, as well as the continuing impasse in Palestine.

We haven’t let the bigger picture distract us from the day job of engaging with colleagues, and helping them assess and manage risks to their lives

The list certainly doesn’t support arguments for our growing perfectibility, and that is before we confront the realities of species loss and climate change. So perhaps there really were periods when life was better.

When I think of our behaviour as health and safety practitioners, I am reminded of Voltaire’s Candide, which sets out the picaresque adventures of a naïve and clumsy young man.

Candide’s teacher Pangloss tries to persuade him that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but the Lisbon earthquake in which many thousands died, along with other experiences, convinces him that this is nonsense.

Candide remains determined that we should strive to make the world better and learns that practical intervention in local matters is most effective; he tends his garden.

That’s what we do every day: we focus on immediate issues to make workplaces safer and healthier for everyone. It doesn’t preclude us from participating in the wider conversations about social structures, underpinning arrangements that would enhance people’s lives, but we haven’t let the bigger picture distract us from the day job of engaging with colleagues and helping them assess and manage risks to their lives and those they care about.

Looking at the accident figures of the past and occupational health statistics today, we cannot accept that there has been a golden age in health and safety. But, in our own ways and collectively through IOSH, we continue to work for one.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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