How risk tolerant are we as a society these days? I went to an interesting panel discussion today.
We live in a less risky society than we have in pretty much any time in history. The risk of dying prematurely, of being severely injured, of having some catastrophic event make you lose your access to food and shelter, of not having access to adequate healthcare are much lower than they have ever been. The decisions we make as a society about the role of government have much to do with that reduction in risk – so that marginal people in our society can still mostly make that statement.
But my belief is that this drastic reduction in risk has made us, in turn, much more risk averse. When I was growing up, one of the neighbourhood kids was killed, riding his bike on a reasonably busy road. He was seven. His parents, in letting him ride his bike on that road at that age, were doing what most parents at the time would have done. His death was, of course, seen as a tragedy, but not one that involve reckless risk taking.
Now, when seven year olds are much less likely to die than they were in my childhood (1) we are also much less willing to take any risk. So I don’t know of any seven year olds who would ride their bike on any road. Not many would be allowed to walk to school by themselves, crossing moderately busy roads (as I did). The risk of harm to those seven year olds has not gone up in that time – it has gone down – partly because of our increased risk aversion (and hence avoidance of risk), but also because the world itself has become safer, with fewer car accidents, safer houses, more urban living, and better healthcare.
But we are even less willing to expose ourselves to the smaller residual risk that remains. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, just one that few people recognise in themselves, instead thinking that the increased precautions we take against risk are caused by increases in risk in the society we live in.
(1) The probablility of a seven year old girl dying in the next year is ony 24% of what it was 40 years ago (source ABS)