1: Quick question: What do you think is the life expectancy for the average person alive in the world today?
“Bear in mind,” Steven Pinker writes in his brilliant book Enlightenment Now, “the global average is dragged down by the premature deaths from hunger and disease in the populous countries in the developing world, particularly by the deaths of infants, who mix a lot of zeroes into the average.”
The answer in 2019 what 72.6 years. Only one in four students and professors in global health guessed it was that high. “The respondents were not so much ignorant as fallaciously pessimistic,” notes Steven.
2: In the mid 18th century, life expectancy was 29 for the entire world, and 35 in Europe, where it hadn’t changed in the 225 years for which we have data. These numbers “are in the range of expected life spans for most of human history,” Steven writes. “The life expectancy of hunter-gatherers is around 32.5, and it probably decreased among the peoples who first took up farming because of their starchy diet and the diseases they caught from their livestock and each other. It returned to the low 30s by the Bronze Age, where it stayed put for thousands of years, with small fluctuations across centuries and regions.”
This period is called the Malthusian Era, when progress in agriculture or health was quickly offset by the resulting increase in population, “though ‘era’ is an odd term for 99.9 percent of our species’ existence,” notes Steven.
But then, starting in the 1800s something truly incredible occurred, what Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton calls the “Great Escape.”
What was the greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution? Innovation itself. Which liberated humanity from poverty, disease, and early death.
“Life expectancy began to rise, picked up speed in the 20th century, and shows no signs of slowing down,” Steven writes.
We tend to believe that “we approach death by one year for every year we age, but during the twentieth century, the average person approached death by just seven months for every year they aged,” observes economic historian Johan Norberg.
“Thrillingly, the gift of longevity is spreading to all of humankind, including the world’s poorest countries, and at a much faster pace than it did in the rich ones.“ Life expectancy in Kenya increased by almost ten years between 2003 and 2013,” Johan writes. “After having lived, loved, and struggled for a whole decade, the average person in Kenya had not lost a single year of their remaining lifetime. Everyone got ten years older, yet death had not come a step closer.”
Our current 72.6 years average worldwide lifespan is higher than it was for any single country in the world in the year 1950.
Since then, life expectancy in Asia has increased at twice the European rate, and Africa at one and a half times the rate.
“An African born today can expect to live as long as a person born in the Americas in 1950 or in Europe in the 1930s,” writes Steven. The average would be even higher had it not been for the calamity of AIDS in Africa, which brought about a devastating decrease in the 1990s before antiretroviral drugs began to bring it under control.
3: “The African AIDS dip is a reminder that progress is not an escalator that inexorably raises the well-being of every human everywhere all the time,” Steven observes. “That would be magic, and progress is an outcome not of magic but of problem-solving. Problems are inevitable, and at times particular sectors of humanity have suffered terrible setbacks.
“In addition to the African AIDS epidemic, longevity went into reverse for young adults worldwide during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 and for middle-aged, non college-educated, non-Hispanic white Americans in the early 21st century,” Steven writes. “But problems are solvable, and the fact that longevity continues to increase in every other Western demographic means the solutions to the problems facing this one exist as well.”
Reflection: What surprises me about the data shared above? Why does it surprise me?
Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who is convinced we live in the “worst of times.”