Does living longer just mean more years spent “senile in a rocking chair”?

We are living longer.  A lot longer.  Worldwide, the average lifespan is now 71.6 years.  Infant mortality is down.  Way down.  Everywhere across the world, writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now.

Which brings up two questions:

1: Is the increase in life expectancy due mostly to the reduction in infant mortality?  


Those of us who survive the difficulties of childbirth and childhood live longer than our compatriots of earlier eras.  

No matter how old we are, we have more years ahead of us than people of our age did in earlier decades and centuries.  A British baby who survives their first year of life would have lived to 47 in 1845, 57 in 1905, 72 in 1955, and 81 in 2011.  

“A 30-year-old could look forward to another thirty-three years of life in 1845, another thirty-six in 1905, another forty-three in 1955, and another fifty-two in 2011,” Steven observes.  “If Socrates had been acquitted in 1905, he could have expected to live another nine years; in 1955, another ten; in 2011, another sixteen. An 80-year-old in 1845 had five more years of life; an 80-year-old in 2011, nine years.” 

The trend is the same in every part of the world.  “For example, a 10-year-old Ethiopian in 1950 could expect to live to 44; a 10-year-old Ethiopian today can expect to live to 61.” 

“The improvements in health among the global poor in the last few decades are so large and widespread that they rank among the greatest achievements in human history.  Rarely has the basic well-being of so many people around the world improved so substantially, so quickly. Yet few people are even aware that it is happening,” notes Georgetown professor and economist Steven Radelet.

2: Will these extra years be spent “senile in a rocking chair”?

Once again, the answer is no.  “Of course the longer you live, the more of those years you’ll live as an older person, with its inevitable aches and pains,” writes Steven.  “But bodies that are better at resisting a mortal blow are also better at resisting the lesser assaults of disease, injury, and wear. As the life span is stretched, our run of vigor is stretched out as well, even if not by the same number of years.”

The Global Burden of Disease project has compiled not just the number of people who drop dead from 291 diseases and disabilities, but how many years of healthy life they lose according to the degree to which each condition impacts the quality of their lives.  In 1990, the project estimated that 56.8 of the 64.5 years of life that an average person could be expected to live were years of healthy life. In 2010, of the 4.7 additional years gained in those two decades, 3.8 were healthy years.

There is good news in many areas involving health and disease,  including “a decline in the death rate from cancer over the past twenty-five years of around a percentage point a year, saving a million lives in the United States alone,” Steven writes.

“For many people the greatest fear raised by the prospect of a longer life is dementia,” Steven notes.  “But another pleasant surprise has come to light: between 2000 and 2012, the rate among Americans over 65 fell by a quarter, and the average age at diagnosis rose from 80.7 to 82.4 years.”

In 2001 George W. Bush appointed a President’s Council on Bioethics to deal with the looming threat of biomedical advances that promise longer and healthier lives.  Its chairman, physician Leon Kass, decreed that “the desire to prolong youthfulness is an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with a devotion to posterity,” and that the years that would be added to other people’s lives were not worth living.  

“Would professional tennis players really enjoy playing 25 percent more games of tennis?” he asked.

Steven’s reply?

“Most people would rather decide that for themselves, and even if he is right that ‘mortality makes life matter,’ longevity is not the same as immortality.” 

More later!


Reflection:  How does the prospect of living more years impact my overall life goals and aspirations?

Action: Journal about my response to the question above.

Is globalization the enemy?

This week we are exploring the reasons behind the incredible drop in worldwide extreme poverty: from 90% in 1800 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to less than 10% today.  

And falling.

The United Nations has set a target of “ending extreme poverty for all people everywhere” by 2030.  

What accounts for this incredible drop?

Yesterday, we looked at three reasons outlined by Steven Radelet, author of The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing Worldas quoted in Steven Pinker‘s Enlightenment Now.

Today, we turn to reasons four and five.

Reason #4 for the dramatic decline in worldwide extreme poverty: Globalization.  “In particular the explosion in trade made possible by container ships and jet airplanes and by the liberalization of tariffs and other barriers to investment and trade,” writes Steven Pinker.  “As countries specialize in different goods and services, they can produce them more efficiently, and it doesn’t cost them much more to offer their wares to billions of people than to thousands.  At the same time buyers, shopping for the best price in a global bazaar, can get more of what they want.

“Notwithstanding the horror that the word elicits in many parts of the political spectrum, globalization, development analysts agree, has been a bonanza for the poor,” notes Steven.  He quotes Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton, who said: “Some argue that globalization is a neoliberal conspiracy designed to enrich a very few at the expense of many.  If so, that conspiracy was a disastrous failure—or at least, it helped more than a billion people as an unintended consequence…” 

“While working on the factory floor is often referred to as sweatshop labor,” observes economist Steven Radelet, “it is often better than the granddaddy of all sweatshops: working in the fields as an agricultural day laborer.” 

He shares his own experience visiting Indonesia in the early 1990’s to conduct research:  “I arrived with a somewhat romanticized view of the beauty of people working in rice paddies, together with reservations about the rapidly growing factory jobs.  The longer I was there, the more I recognized how incredibly difficult it is to work in the rice fields.  

“It’s a backbreaking grind, with people eking out the barest of livings by bending over for hours in the hot sun to terrace the fields, plant the seeds, pull the weeds, transplant the seedlings, chase the pests, and harvest the grain.  Standing in the pools of water brings leeches and the constant risk of malaria, encephalitis, and other diseases.  So, it was not too much of a surprise that when factory jobs opened offering wages of $2 a day, hundreds of people lined up to get a shot at applying.”

Kavita Ramdas, the head of the Global Fund for Women, said in 2001 that in an Indian village “all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and relatives, pound millet, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.”

Steven Pinker shares data from a Bangladesh study which confirms women who worked in the garment industry (as Steven’s grandparents did in 1930s Canada) “enjoyed rising wages, later marriage, and fewer and better-educated children.  Over the course of a generation, slums, barrios, and favelas can morph into suburbs, and then working class can become middle class.”

Industrialization of the developing world has produced poor working conditions that are “harsh by the standards of modern rich countries and have elicited bitter condemnation,” notes Steven.

Consumer protests and pressure from trade negotiators has resulted in “measurably improved working conditions in many places, and it is a natural progression as countries get richer and more integrated into the global community,” notes Steven.

Progress does not mean “accepting every change as part of an indivisible package—as if we had to make a yes-or-no decision on whether the Industrial Revolution, or globalization, is a good thing or bad thing, exactly as each has unfolded in every detail,” Steven observes.  

“Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social progress as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms,” writes Steven.

Reason #5:  Science and technology.  “Life is getting cheaper, in a good way.  Thanks to advances in know-how, an hour of labor can buy more food, health, education, clothing, building materials,” Steven writes.  

“As for good advice on health, farming, and business: it’s better than cheap; it’s free.” 

More than half of the adults worldwide own a smartphone.

“In parts of the world without roads, landlines, postal service, newspapers, or banks, mobile phones are more than a way to share gossip and cat photos; they are a major generator of wealth,” Steven writes.  “They allow people to transfer money, order supplies, track the weather and markets, find day labor, get advice on health and farming practices, and even obtain a primary education.”  

Access to information about medicine, electronics, crop varieties, and best practices in agriculture, business, and public health has made a huge impact. 

“According to one estimate, every cell phone adds $3,000 to the annual GDP of a developing country,” Steven writes.

But what about growing income inequality?

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Am I surprised by the data above?  Why or why not?  

Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who is convinced we live in the “worst of times.”