Skip to content

New economic problems emerge as the world gets older

The most startling statistic I have seen in years is this: since the 1840s, life expectancy in developed countries has increased

The most startling statistic I have seen in years is this: since the 1840s, life expectancy in developed countries has increased by three months per year. That rate of increase continues to apply today. If it does not radically deviate from its historic pattern, now almost two centuries old, the children born in 2000 probably have a life expectancy of around 100 years.

That sounds so extreme that you have to pick the numbers apart before you’ll accept them. Let’s see. 1840 to now is about 160 years. Life expectancy in the United States and Britain was about 40 in 1850. Today it’s about 80. A 40-year increase in 160 years — yup, that’s three months more every year.

Of course, you immediately suspect that there’s a hidden front-end load in this statistic: that most of the increase in average lifespan came during the first century of this period, when better food, clean water and antibiotics were suppressing the infectious diseases that killed so many people in childhood. And that really was the phenomenon that drove the process in the early decades of the period — but the rate has remained steady right down to the present.

By 1971, the diseases of childhood had been largely suppressed and as a result life expectancy for a man in Britain, for example, had risen to 68 years. Most further increases in life expectancy could only come from medical and lifestyle changes that lengthened survival rates in the later decades of life.

But life expectancy at birth went on rising. It is now 77 for a British male. British people are living 10 years longer than in 1971, which was only 42 years ago. So average lifespan is still going up at the same old rate: three months per year.

And there’s more good news: the incidence of crippling diseases and disabilities is still largely a phenomenon of the last decade of life. Indeed, demographers are now making a distinction between the “young old” (in their 70s and 80s, mostly still independent and in reasonable shape physically) and the “oldest old” (in their 90s and 100s, mostly frail and in need of care

The same transformation is now taking place in the rapidly industrializing countries like China and India. Indeed, like the industrialization process itself, it has happened even faster. Life expectancy in China was only 42 years as recently as 1950. It’s now 75 years, which means it was going up at six months per year for most of that period. But it has now slowed down to about the same pace as in the older developed countries.

Of course, there is a rather large economic problem hidden in these statistics. The proportion of the adult population that is over 65 years old, once only a small fraction of the whole, is now heading for up towards one-third of the total. It is simply not possible for all of them to “retire” and be supported by the two-thirds who are of “working age”.

Something has to give here, and it is probably the retirement age. Increasing numbers of over-65s are continuing to work, at least part-time. In fact, the latest British statistics show that almost half of the increase in employment since the beginning of the recession in 2008 has been of people over 65, mostly in self-employment or part-time work.

Welcome to the new world.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.