Living to 150: A quick reality check

Our fact challenged Treasurer, Joe Hockey raised some eyebrows when he suggested that we need to reform Medicare because children born today might live to 150. He got some support from University of New South Wales faculty of medicine dean Peter Smith, who cited the increase in life expectancy over the last century, from 55/59 (for men and women respectively) in 1910 to 80/84 today.

There’s an apparent paradox here: If life expectancy is 80/84 years today, how can a newborn child expect to live 150 years. The answer is that “life expectancy” is nothing of the sort. It’s the average age at death if current age-specific mortality rates remain unchanged. On average, people born in 1910 actually lived well beyond their “life expectancy” because death rates fell through their lifetime. So, if medical progress continues, people born today may live, on average, well past 80/84.

But how much more? Unfortunately, on past indications, not much more. Most of the 20th century extension of life expectancy came from a reduction in death rates for the young. A 65-year old in 1910 could expect to live to 76/78 (since death rates don’t change much over a decade, that’s an actual expectation not just a statistical construct). Today, that’s increased to 84/87, from 11/13 years of extra life to 19/22. For Hockey to be right, over the next 100 years or so, the conditional expectancy has to rise five-fold, to 85 years. The basis for all this, it seems, is a 2011 press release of the kind we see every week or two announcing a breakthrough that might, perhaps, lead to a cure for this or that disease.

But even in the unlikely event that this extension of life occurs, what possible relevance could it have to the amount we should pay for medical care today? Even under current rules (which would certainly change with extended life expectancy) Hockey’s hypothetical Methuselah wouldn’t be eligible for the age pension until 2085 and (given the anti-aging breakthrough he hypothesises) wouldn’t seriously burden the health care system until well into the 22nd century. Coming from a government that dismisses concerns about climate change as a problem for the indefinite future, this solicitude for Treasurers yet unborn seems misplaced.

Update Via Twitter, I discover that the source of Hockey’s claim is someone called Aubry de Grey, who is obviously in the tradition of wealthy British eccentrics, with his own foundation, journal and so on; a much more appealing instance of this kind of thing than Lord Monckton, but still not to be taken seriously.

Further update Defending Hockey’s silliness, Mark Kenny makes the point that what Hockey actually said (restating de Grey) was that it is “remarkable that somewhere in the world today, it is highly probable, a child has been born who will live to be 150”. This shift from mean to maximum helps the demographic plausibility of Hockey’s case, but only marginally (we still need an advance of nearly 30 years on 122, the longest lifespan ever recorded), but it makes the argument even weaker. Suppose that some child in, say, China is going to live to 150. What possible impact can that have on our health system. More generally, what can it matter to the budget if a handful of people live very long lives. It’s the average (measured by numbers like life expectancy at 65) that matters. As an indication of the minuscule scale of the fiscal problem posed by those with very long lives, there are currently only about 4250 Australians aged over 100, amounting to about 0.02 per cent of our population.

Yet further update It’s worth pointing out that, with pension age eligibility rising from 65/60 when the age pension was introduced around 1910 to 70/70 by 2035, men will have lost half of the extra retirement years gained from higher life expectancy and women the whole gain. The big problem we face is underemployment of prime-age workers, not the fact that we aren’t dying early enough.

97 thoughts on “Living to 150: A quick reality check

  1. @Donald Oats
    I never saw footage like that as a kid. I did read a social science text in year 1, with a few dismal, grainy images, that described Aboriginal people as “stone age” and destined to “die out”. The stuff we were taught as children about Aboriginals was the vilest of lies for which there can be no forgiveness towards the sanctimonious authority of white sliced history.

    Years after my social studies reader chapter, on another project, I read the work of Daisy Bates, her ‘The Passing of the Aborigines’ (1938), which is without doubt the most revolting and putrid text by the most revolting and putrid person to have ever been published in Australia.

    She is to Australia what Kurtz was to the Congo.

    You can look her up.

    We live with the residues of genocide. Its our job to expose it to light.

  2. There are many reports of whites who were taken in by the blacks during the contact or invasion period and welcomed into the tribe or group. It is difficult to understand how people continue with the stories that our blackfellas were ‘warlike’ and had a ‘violent’ culture and that is the reason for their problems now.

    Another report about this sort of encounter is from John Fahey, a life sentence prisoner who escaped from a road party in 1842. The New England blacks took him to the Bunya’s where he was adopted by one of the tribes there and he stayed with them until he was brought to Brisbane in 1854 .

    He had nearly forgotten his own language and had been through initiation ceremonies because he was scarred with the tribal markings.

    It isn’t recorded that he was horrified by the level of violence he noticed among these people, he had nothing to say about the appalling levels of violence against the women – something that the Quadrant type ‘anthropologists’ become quite incensed about – and it seems from a white man account of the diet of the blacks in that area that he would have been eating fresh water mullet and cray fish and roast root of the Cambooya plant which is “quite equal to asparagus”.

    I’d think that having been a prisoner who in that life had probably been lashed for trivial and arbitrary offenses against person and property, that he might not have regarded the violence that he saw and experienced in traditional culture as a big problem or anything strange and worth talking about.

    He possibly was smart enough to have noticed and understood that there were rules – the law – that applied to the occurrence of this violence and violation of the law incurred severe penalties.

    There is film footage of an old couple who came in from the desert in the 1930’s I think, where they had lived for 30 years having been ostracized from all the local tribes because they violated the ‘skin’ laws by marrying each other and/or refusing to marry the right person. This couple must have managed to survive for as long as they did because people helped them and that wouldn’t have happened when the law was being applied without the disruption that the arrival of white people created.

    And Jungney poor Daisy Bates, was just trying to make a buck and get ahead; from some thing I read she was urged by people to write what they wanted to tell their readers. But she was a very strange woman, as were so many of the white people who came here to interact with ‘the natives’. They certainly had ‘issues’ as Kath and Kim would say.

    Oh dear off topic again.

  3. @jungney

    Why are you directing these comments to me?

    Julie Thomas wrote (to DD): “Do you have some recent anthro refs about the numbers of young men killed in war in hunter-gatherer societies?” I responded with a link to references. I’ve (very deliberately) not made any comment about Australia at all.

    If you find the term “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who introduced the term to the discussion? If you find describing pre-invasion Aboriginal societies as “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who first made the link? Why are you directing your comments about Aboriginal land ownership to me, when Julie Thomas wrote “blackfellas did not own their land; they shared it”?

    The link to statistics that I provided does include a small amount of evidence concerning Aborigines (but not enough to draw conclusions, so I didn’t). But you didn’t bother looking, did you?

    Are you aware that researchers who’ve studied relative rates of violent deaths in different types of societies generally think the critical factor affecting rates is the presence or lack of a central government that can enforce peace? (Jared Diamond has a brief explanation here: http://www.jareddiamond.org/Jared_Diamond/Rousseau_Revisited.html). If this is the case, it makes the question of the extent to which a non-state society was nomadic or agricultural or whatever moot as far as this issue goes.

  4. @jugney

    Why are you directing these comments to me?

    Julie Thomas wrote (to DD): “Do you have some recent anthro refs about the numbers of young men killed in war in hunter-gatherer societies?” I responded with a link to references. I’ve (very deliberately) not made any comment about Australia at all.

    If you find the term “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who introduced the term to the discussion? If you find describing pre-invasion Aboriginal societies as “hunter-gatherer” unacceptable, why are you telling me, rather than “sunshine” who first made the link? Why are you directing your comments about Aboriginal land ownership to me, when Julie Thomas wrote “blackfellas did not own their land; they shared it”?

    The link to statistics that I provided does include a small amount of evidence concerning Aborigines (but not enough to draw conclusions, so I didn’t). But you didn’t bother looking, did you?

    Are you aware that researchers who’ve studied relative rates of violent deaths in different types of societies generally think the critical factor affecting rates is the presence or lack of a central government that can enforce peace? (Jared Diamond has a brief explanation here: http://www.jareddiamond.org/Jared_Diamond/Rousseau_Revisited.html). If this is the case, it makes the question of the extent to which a non-state society was nomadic or agricultural or whatever moot.

    (Professor Quiggin, please delete the comment that is in moderation.)

  5. Luke

    Why not direct comments at you? You are free to ignore them if you wish; that would be the grown up thing to do.

    So where do our blackfellas fit in this categorisation of societies you are thinking of? Probably you should reply in the Sandpit.

    Check out this fella; he is much more interesting and up to date in his speculation than Jared Diamond; just don’t believe anything he says about the paleo-diet.

    http://socialevolutionforum.com/2012/09/03/psychohistory-and-cliodynamics/

    The above is an old blog from where he begins to look at the role of war in the development of civilization. I hope you find it useful but ignore it if not. No need to ask me why I am recommending a blog to you.

    And comments go into moderation if there are more than two links and clicking on relpy – which I didn’t in this comment -counts as one link. This is the way it works as I understand it and now I am definitely going to stop this off-topic thing.

  6. @Julie Thomas

    I find it interesting that you mention Turchin. I was vaguely aware of him so I checked your link. Some disparate thoughts occur me.

    1. I would like to read him so I will have to add him to my growing list. I have declared 2015 a year of reading (of books rather than blogs) for myself.

    2. He mentions Tolstoy’s theory of history which immediately recommends Turchin to me.

    Now I have purloined the Tolstoy quotes below from Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB, to save me writing my own views which are very similar in at least some respects.

    Tolstoy on causation and attribution

    “‘It is beyond the power of the human intellect to encompass all the causes of any phenomenon. But the impulse to search into causes is inherent in man’s very nature. And so the human intellect, without investigating the multiplicity and complexity of circumstances conditioning an event, any one of which taken separately may seem to be the reason for it, snatches at the first most comprehensible approximation to a cause and says ‘There is the cause’……” – Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy on Command and Control and the fallacy of hindsight

    ‘History shows that the expression of the will of historical personages in the majority of cases does not produce any effect – that is, their commands are often not executed and sometimes the very opposite of what they order is done…. Every command executed is always one of an immense number unexecuted. All the impossible commands are inconstant with the course of events and do not get carried out. Only the possible ones link up into a consecutive series of commands corresponding to a series of events, and are carried out.

    Our erroneous idea that the command which precedes the event causes the event is due to the fact that when the event has taken place and out of thousands of commands, those few which were consistent with that event have been executed we forget about the others that were not executed because they could not be.’ – Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy on Freedom

    ‘All man’s aspirations, all the interest that life holds for him, are so many aspirations and strivings after greater freedom. Wealth and poverty, fame and obscurity, power and subjection, strength and weakness, health and disease, culture and ignorance, work and leisure, repletion and hunger, virtue and vice are only greater or lesser degrees of freedom.’ – Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy on free will

    ‘In history, what is known to us we call the laws of necessity; what is unknown we call freewill. Freewill is for history only an expression connoting what we do not know about the laws of human life.’

    3. It seems likely to me that societies follow certain mathematical laws (as probabilistic laws or relationships). For example, there is plenty of evidence that food prices when they become excessive in poor countries lead to a higher probability of civil strife or insurrection. For example, work has been done on food riots around the world in the last decade related to the FAO Food Price Index. There is a correlation as we might expect.

  7. @Luke Elford
    Luke:

    Why are you directing these comments to me?

    But why not?

    When it comes to diminishing violence between humans over time Norbert Elias is much more nuanced than Jared Diamond. The former, in ‘The History of Manners’ (1939):

    traces the historical developments of the European habitus, or “second nature,” the particular individual psychic structures molded by social attitudes. Elias traced how post-medieval European standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance, working outward from a nucleus in court etiquette. The internalized “self-restraint” imposed by increasingly complex networks of social connections developed the “psychological” self-perceptions that Freud recognized as the “super-ego.”

    His second volume (1939), ‘State Formation and Civilization’, attributes agency to the state, as the title suggests.

    I tried grinding my way through another of Diamond’s works which ought to have been called ‘My Thoughts on Everything’ but gave up when I checked the index and noted that he only gives a few pages to hygiene in pre-modern societies. One of these pages is devoted to his own gut issues.

    The ongoing effort to identify higher levels of violence in pre-modern societies is flogging a dead horse. Elias provided that evidence in 1939 and in relation to Europe so he is free from the taint of the global racist discourse that is anthropology. There must be a reason why people keep dragging up the violence of pre-modern societies and it appears to me to be a way of attributing violent tendencies to current generations of colonised people which goes to evidence of either their unfitness for modernity or inclusion within liberal democracies.

  8. @Ikonoclast

    Thanks for that, Tolstoy certainly was a insightful philosopher/psychologist who was interested in seeing the patterns and laws of human nature as they were expressed by the behaviour of the people in his society. There were many of these men – Dostoevsky and Freud and the James’s, William and Henry also – who had insight into themselves and others and they all provide us with some valuable descriptions of the dynamics of human behaviour as it occurs in particular cultures.

    Turchin is a fascinating thinker and I’ve been keeping up with his blog for years now wondering when he will become interested in how our aborigines and their ‘civilization’ fits into his theory.

    I agree with him that ‘dynamics’ is the way to conceptualise the ‘laws’ of human behavior in all it’s complexity.

  9. Jungney

    There must be a reason why people keep dragging up the violence of pre-modern societies and it appears to me to be a way of attributing violent tendencies to current generations of colonised people which goes to evidence of either their unfitness for modernity or inclusion within liberal democracies.

    There probably is something in that, but I rather suspect the stronger impulse is to found the assertion that violence is innate — ‘human nature’ as it’s commonly called — and thus something modern folk should passively accept subject to it being implemented by the state in wars, prisons and by police. The idea that humans might devise societies where direct violence and bullying was seen as a perverse and repugnant and corrosive of human community and individual dignity is something that runs deep amongst the privileged.

  10. Thanks Julie, I’ve actually read some of his stuff. I note that he disagrees with Fry (whose work featured in your other link), about the supposed absence of war before about 10,000 years ago. Like Fry he thinks that warfare became more common between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, but concedes there is a lack of evidence to prove whether warfare was more common or less common before this time.

    As I indicated in my first comment, I don’t think that the question of whether violent deaths resulted from warfare (however one might define it) or other acts has much bearing on discussions about life expectancies or levels of happiness. My understanding is that even those, such as Raymond Kelly, who think that hunter-gatherer societies were warless accept that they were very violent, with war representing a change in the type of violence only.

    Yes, I still make the two-link mistake now and then, sadly.

    Jugney, the issue of violence in pre-modern societies was raised in this thread because the issue of life expectancies (and levels of happiness) in pre-modern societies was raised. Anthropologists study violence in pre-modern societies because anthropologists study pre-modern societies. In public debate, some people raise the issue of violence in pre-modern societies because they are racists, but others discuss the historical trajectory of violence because fact-challenged utopians and those who react hysterically to small risks need a reminder that society has not gone down the toilet since the Neolithic Revolution, or the Enlightenment, or the 60s, or whatever historical juncture takes their fancy.

  11. Hmm … That concluding sentence wasn’t quite right:

    The idea that humans might devise societies where direct violence and bullying was seen as perverse, repugnant and thus corrosive of human community and individual dignity is something that causes deep angst amongst the privileged.

    Apologies all …

  12. I should make clear that my concluding paragraph referred to the privileged classes of the wider world rather than anyone posting here. I certainly didn’t mean to refer to Luke Elford above in my observation, just for the record.

  13. Luke, For me, the fact that some people raise the issue of pre-modern violence to justify their racism is more problematic than the romanticism or irrational utopians who fire up and express their hysteria. These beliefs, that violence is a significant feature of h-g life that renders it totally repugnant and worthless with nothing to offer ‘us’ when we think about human nature, is a huge problem compared to those who seem to annoy you.

    This is the variety of violence that I find, not incredible but appalling and so stupid because psychological violence does a lot of damage that affects us all.

    Prof Turchin is on the right track – you know imho – but as with his sudden conversion to the paleo-diet, there are things that he doesn’t see clearly. The wired piece was a quick and dirty reference I could find to offer someone who seemed to me – but them I lack a lot of social skills they say – to need a general introduction to the field.

    I suppose a violent society would need some substantial exposure to another society in which violence was not seen as something anti-social rather than normal behaviour and just what people do to solve problems. Our indigenous did not have contact with any other putatively peaceful societies until the British arrived and so many of these people with their peaceful Christian religion were not very good ambassadors for this peaceful and non-violent religion that they preached to the poor heathens.

  14. Re: claims of violence in “hunter gatherer” societies – this topic is not a particular interest of mine but it’s worth pointing out that Jared Diamond’s work is at least in part based on an uncritical acceptance of Napoleon Chagnon’s highly contested work, so I would be somewhat skeptical of his claims about violence in other cultures. Eg. :

    “I stumbled upon Napoleon Chagnon while reviewing Jared Diamond’s use of the ethnographic record in The World Until Yesterday. First reaction–Disbelief. Jared Diamond is using Napoleon Chagnon uncritically!? In 2013? But Brian Ferguson did the science on Napoleon Chagnon in 1995!
    My take from 6 February 2013:

    Brian Ferguson already did a complete empirical revision on the Yanomami evidence 20 years ago. After that work, no reputable scholar should be uncritically citing Napoleon Chagnon for empirical evidence. That this even must be done over again is a farce. Diamond cites only Napoleon Chagnon on the Yanomami. He does not mention Ferguson in his book, nor do we ever hear that there may have been a debate about Yanomami warfare. Somewhat ironically, Ferguson and others cleared this up in the scientific journals years ago, but Diamond gets the scientist label without paying attention to science.”

    http://www.livinganthropologically.com/2013/03/16/brian-ferguson-napoleon-chagnon/

  15. Donald Oats.

    I think I might have a vague recollection of a film or video. I know I have vivid disgust for a still photo of a group exactly as you describe it. It was taken in WA in the 30s. I think it might have been in a book that was culled from the shelves when we moved a couple of years ago so I don’t have the details handy.

    As for longevity. The issue isn’t life expectancy at birth. Regardless of how long the Hunzas or any other group were reputed to have lived, the issue for every society is life expectancy at 20, 40, 60 and beyond. The Hunzas very likely had the same kinds of high death rates for infants and children that all societies tend to suffer.

    30ish years ago we were doing some research for an essay for a public health subject and there was a sort of amusing oddity in collating the statistics. There were obvious differences between men and women in every age group. Once you got to the very old, if you were careless in reading or graphing the numbers you could make it look as though women in their 90s might never die because of the staggering decrease in the death rate for that group. Men in their 90s on the other hand had a death rate that simply continued and accelerated at much the same rate as it had for earlier life stages

    Of course the real takeaway was that, once you eliminated the effects of the two great wars of the 20th century, life expectancy at 20 or 40, at 60 & 80, had always been much, much greater than a naive reading of bare life expectancy numbers would give you.

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