Western life expectancy slows in ‘lost decade’

Long life: Over the last century, life expectancy has risen by one year every four years.

Has Western society stopped improving? A shocking new report shows that babies born in England will no longer live longer than their parents. Life expectancy in America peaked in 2014.

“Nasty, brutish, and short.”

That’s what life was like before civilisation, according to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. And for over a century, progress has been measured by rising life expectancy as people in the West lived longer, happier, healthier lives.

So experts are worried by the latest report showing that, since 2010, life expectancy in England has ground to a halt. And among the poorest, it has even begun to decline.

A similar trend is taking place across Western society. The worst news is in the US where life expectancy peaked in 2014 at 78.84 years.

The author of the report in England says, “If health has stopped improving, that means society has stopped improving.” So what’s going wrong, and is he right?

Average life expectancy is a deceptively simple number by which we can gauge the health of a society, and there are many factors behind its rise and fall.

Over the 20th Century, improvements in medicine, technology, living and working conditions helped extend people’s lives in the UK from 46 to 76 years. And as countries grew richer, their citizens lived longer.

Now, the fall in the US is being blamed on the spread of drug addiction, deaths related to poor diet and obesity, and higher rates of suicide – especially in rural areas.

In the UK, economic austerity and winter flu deaths are thought to be behind the grim data.

It’s a bleak picture, but does it tell the whole story?

It can be easy, says Steven Pinker, to focus on our immediate problems and experiences, and lose sight of the immense progress across society. If we zoom out to look at global and long-term trends, we are living better lives than our parents and grandparents.

And some signs of progress are harder to measure than others. In the last decade, governments and statisticians have given more attention to measuring happiness as society seeks to improve mental health and well-being.

But changing social values are perhaps the hardest to measure. Western societies continue to become more inclusive and tolerant of difference and diversity, from sexual orientation to ethnicity and gender equality.

So, has western society stopped improving?

Decline and fall

Of course not, say some. Most of our current problems can be traced back to the global recession in 2007. We are still recovering from the enormous scale of that crisis, but the long march of progress continues. We are surrounded by the evidence: medical advances in treating cancer and dementia, giant leaps forward in renewable energy and green technology, and falling rates of violent crime.

Others warn that we should take the fall in life expectancy very seriously. A society should be judged by how it looks after the old and the vulnerable. If poorer people are dying younger, it means there is something fundamentally wrong. For generations, people believed that their children would live longer, have better lives, and progress was inevitable. We can no longer make that assumption.

You Decide

  1. Will your life be better than your parents?
  2. Is wealth, health or happiness the best measurement of progress?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are 100 years old. Write about all the changes, for better or for worse, that you have seen in your life.
  2. You are the UK minister for health. Use the expert links to draw up a plan to stop the falling life expectancy.

Some People Say...

“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing.”

George Orwell (1903-1950), English writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Life expectancy is widely accepted as a good indicator of the general health of a society. Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s report shows a “lost decade” in England, in which life expectancy rose very slightly overall, and fell by 0.3 years for women in the most deprived areas of England. We know that life expectancy is closely linked to income levels and national wealth, with richer people in wealthier countries living longer on average.
What do we not know?
The factors that contribute to life expectancy are diverse and complex. So, experts disagree on the underlying causes and whether these trends will continue. However, there is a bigger debate about the importance of different measures of progress and development. For example, was life expectancy a more important measure of progress 100 years ago than it is today? When most people born in the UK can expect to live into their 80s, should we worry more about the quality rather than the length of life?

Word Watch

Thomas Hobbes
English philosopher and founder of modern political philosophy (1588-1679).
Life expectancy
National averages are predictions of how long a child born today is expected to live, given the current rate of mortality.
Drug addiction
In the last decade, addiction to pain medication has soared in the US leading to a sharp rise in overdoses.
Economic austerity
Following the economic crisis in 2007-8, many governments cut back on public service spending.
Steven Pinker
Canadian-American psychologist and popular science author. His books, Angels Of Our Better Nature and Enlightenment Now, argue that popular opinion about the state of society is pessimistic and factually inaccurate.
Happiness
The World Happiness Report, funded by the UN, was set up in 2012. According to their rankings, the happiest country is Finland and the least happy is South Sudan.
Global recession
A banking crisis in 2007 caused the global economy to shrink.

Subjects

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