I noticed while doing practice math PhD exams that the newer exams tend to be a bit easier than the older exams. The online archive goes back about ten years or so, but I was able to dig up some old exams from the mid-80s. I was absolutely shocked. I would get wrecked if they gave me one of these. I don't even think I could finish one if they let me take it home.
I looked around at some other PhD exam records at other universities, and it seems to be an across the board thing, not just my department.
Some people I've asked about this give the explanation that PhD programs are bigger now than they used to be-- in other words, in the past, only geniuses got PhDs, and since then cretins like me have gradually wormed our way into academia and lowered standards for everybody. This would make sense, but I'm not sure if this is just something people say, or something that is actually true. People have a tendency to put the past on a pedestal, and I'm skeptical.
Another explanation I could think of would be drift in material content. Maybe they were studying different stuff back then at the same difficulty, or using different terminology to study the same thing we do now. Maybe it just seems harder to me because I'm not used to how they talk about it. A lot of PhD level material is, after all, reasonably modern.
I also wonder if exam practices used to be different-- open book, take-home, more hand waving tolerated in grading, offered at the end of the 5th year. Something?
All this is speculation, though, which I find unsatisfying. Has this actually been studied with healthy rigor and skepticism? What is the history?