I would like to see a quantitative wealth comparison between the average human in a hunter gather or agrarian society to average human in the today's world.

I'm mostly interested in how the discovery of natural energy resources combined with Newtonian physics influence on technology has changed the world in terms of relative worth of a human.

The kind of answer I'm looking for would be something like: We are 10, 100 or 1000 times more wealthy based upon x. X being what ever you use as a basis to create that comparison.


3 Answers 3


There is significant debate about whether such x exists.

For example Louis XIV had things in his estate that are not in mine (I do not have two palaces). But there are also things in my estate that were not in his. I have access to 21st century healthcare, dental care, the internet, I can flush after going to the toilet...whose lifestyle is 'worth' more?

The comparison gets more difficult the farther you go back. So hunter gatherers, with tribal ownership, without any currency and frequently without any sort of industry are probably uncomparable to modern humans via any 'wealth' based standard.


For comparison with mainly agrarian pre-industrial societies, it is possible to derive estimates of X from figures in the Maddison Project Database, which contains estimates of real per capita GDP at various historic dates for various countries. For the UK / England, for example:

$$\frac{\text{UK Per capita GDP 2010}}{\text{UK Per capita GDP 1720}}=\frac{23777}{1703}=14$$

For the US and predecessors:

$$\frac{\text{US Per capita GDP 2010}}{\text{US Per capita GDP 1720}}=\frac{30491}{900}=34$$

However, such figures should be treated with extreme caution for various reasons:

  1. The data underpinning GDP only began to be routinely collected in the mid 20th century following the work of Kuznets. Earlier figures, however carefully researched, are inevitably estimates and unlikely to be very accurate.
  2. Even if accurately measured, GDP is subject to many well-known limitations
    as a measure of welfare (see for example here). One limitation which is perhaps especially significant when making comparisons over long periods of time is the exclusion of unpaid household work. Ordinary people in the 18th century, living rurally as most of them did, are unlikely to have had either the opportunities or the means that people have today to pay for others to do their cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.
  3. Many countries have changed in size and area. It isn't clear, for example, whether the US figures for 1720 relate to the whole of the current area of the US (and so include the economies of Native Americans), or whether they just include the regions then settled by Europeans.
  4. A further pitfall would be to interpret these figures as estimates of growth in productivity arising from improved technology and capital accumulation. Even the low living standards of the 18th century were achieved with much lower population densities than today, implying on average much more land suitable for agriculture per person. So it can be argued that the figures under-estimate productivity growth.

As others noted, these kinds of things are extremely difficult to calculate because we don't have good data going back much further than the start of the 20th century and because it is hard to make a like for like comparison between modern and pre-industrial life.

But Brad DeLong has attempted to estimate global GDP over very long historical time horizons. Global GDP measured in 1990 dollars was \$41tn in 2000. DeLong's estimates put it at \$0.1tn in 1700. Thus, a crude estimate would be that the world is around 410 times as productive now as it was in the late pre-industrial era.

You can read more about these estimates in this paper.

Bear in mind that these figure are for the whole planet. The increase will be much steeper in rich western countries that have benefitted most from technology.

enter image description here

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 De Long's paper is very relevant. As I understand it, the 410 times relates to total GDP, and implies that productivity per capita has grown about 41 times since 1700 (population having grown about 10 times since then) - a huge increase but surely not quite enough to support the twenty minutes comparison? $\endgroup$ Nov 24, 2016 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ @AdamBailey You're right, I got carried away at the end and jumped from aggregate to per capita. I edited the post to fix. $\endgroup$
    – Ubiquitous
    Nov 24, 2016 at 13:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.