Extraordinary changes have occurred elsewhere. In 1970 Vietnam had a life expectancy of 48, and it is 75 now – it took England and Wales from 1894 to 1986 to make this transition. We can also see the effects of inequality within a country. For instance, in 1901 life expectancy for Black men in the US was 32, with 43% dying before 20 – for White men the corresponding figures were 48 and 24%. After 100 years and a civil rights movement, the gap in life expectancy was still visible, though it had narrowed from 16 years to five.
Looking forward, we are told that the global population is at seven billion and rapidly rising, and we can also make some reasonable guesses for the life expectancy of people born now. If we allow for future improvements in health, the “principle projections” estimate that males born now in England and Wales can on average expect to live until 90, and for females it is 94, with 32% of males and 39% of females expected to reach 100 in 2112.
The mind boggles at these figures. But these projections are, understandably, rather controversial. Is there some inbuilt ageing process, and can it be reversed? Or is there some natural ceiling that we are going to bang our wrinkled heads against?
One thing is certain for children born in the future – there are going to be a lot of old people around for them to look after, as those already plodding through their middle-age are not going to go away. The UN estimates that the proportion of people over 60 will double between 2007 and 2050, as people will live longer and lower fertility rates mean fewer young people. There will be two billion people over 60 in the world by 2050, and around 400 million over 80.
But what sort of state are all these old people going to be in? After the bit about three-score years and ten; Psalm 90 continues with “and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away”, which does not exactly paint an encouraging picture of ageing. Are we making all this effort to live longer, just so that we can spend even more time sitting round the edge of a room, television blaring, struggling to grasp what reluctant visitors are shouting at us?
In fact, it does not look so bad: in 2008 UK men at age 65 had around 17 years of life expectancy left, 10 of which would be considered as “good” or “very good” health, and this is quite a stringent criterion. Women had more than 20 years left on average, 11 of which would be classed as being “healthy”.
All of which is something of a comfort to me. I will be 64 in a few years, and I have already lost most of my hair. But I am aiming to wait as long as possible before entering “Dunsummin”, the retirement home for statisticians.