A life expectancy of 95 by 2050? This does not mean what you think it means

Among the scary numbers in the Intergenerational Report was the estimate that, by 2050, life expectancy would have risen to 95/96 years, which would seem to imply a huge increase in the number of years spent in retirement. I checked and found that the report gave current life expectancy as 92/93 years, far higher than the 80 or so that is usually quoted. The reason, it turns out is that the standard estimate is done on a “period” basis, using the age-specific mortality rates of the present. The higher estimate is done on a “cohort” basis, taking account of expected future reductions in mortality. More on this here.

A few observations on this point.

* An increase of four years is neither surprising nor alarming. This is doubtless why this comparison ins not made in the IGR.

* In my last post, I noted the use of the obsolete 15-64 category to estimate the working-age population. One possible defence was that this was done in consistency with past practice. But clearly this can’t apply to the (unannounced) shift from the standard period basis to a cohort basis

* More importantly, the 95-year figure is an estimate of the likely life expectancy of children born in 2050, who would reach retiring age some time after 2115. Even the current birth cohort won’t be of pensionable age until near the end of this century.

A cohort measure of life expectancy is more relevant to projections of future pension expenditure than a period measure, though it requires the use of estimates of future mortality. But the relevant cohorts for the purpose of the IGR are those born before 1983 who will be 67 and over in 2050 and will then (assuming no policy change) be eligible for the age pension.

31 thoughts on “A life expectancy of 95 by 2050? This does not mean what you think it means

  1. @john goss
    Lordy, Lordy, I don’t know where to start with this one. You seem to think the entire health sector is just talking about obesity because they want more money, while concealing the fact that smoking rates have dropped. Did you not know that public health advocates have been fighting to bring smoking rates down for over 50 years?

    Similarly the public health sector is extremely active on trying to reduce alcohol use, encourage healthy eating and promote physical activity. Many, like myself, are even working on broader social issues.

    Please think before you again slander a whole profession.

  2. @Val

    I took that comment another way. Maybe John Goss will clarify, but I saw health “industry” as distinct from health “sector” or “professionals” etc…

    In other words, the way I read it was “Big Sick” (it wouldn’t be right to call it “Big Health”) just like “Big Agri”, “Big Oil”, “Big Tabaco” etc.. is always going to push the next barrow it sees as being in its self-interest – lecturing us about our failings – rather than presenting a more balanced outlook, such as: “We’ve done very well on smoking and booze, but there are other areas we could improve on as well.”

    Often you can see headlines on media websites that proclaim how fat/drunk/unfit/unhealthy/stupid etc… we all supposedly are. If you dig into the source of the story it will almost invariably be tracked back to “Big Sick” in one guise or another.

  3. When one is advocating for change there is a natural tendency to focus on those arguments that support one’s position and minimise those arguments which don’t support it. This is something I have done and no doubt still do despite my efforts to be objective. It is a fact of life. So I am not being critical of the work of people in the health industry who are working to reduce risk factors and the social determinants of health. I am saying though that the message coming from the health lobby groups is unbalanced in its emphasis on the bad news. And although this is a fact of life, anyway interested in health policy needs to be aware how messages from the health lobby groups distort the real story. A sceptical eye is necessary.

  4. @Aaron

    Check the first slide on the Powerpoint presenting the report. It mentions the current and future period measures, then points to the future cohort measure (95 years) as more accurate, but doesn’t mention that we are already at 91 on the cohort measure.

  5. Thanks Megan and John Goss, that makes it a bit clearer. I agree with Megan about “Big Sick” -great name – but I think they are more likely to be presenting the ‘answer’ as more medication and more surgery!

    I did think that maybe those who were telling us it was all our own fault because of our “lifestyles” were misguided, but not necessarily driven by the profit motive, until I remembered that Michelle Bridges, the fitness instructor and guru on “The Biggest Loser” has just entered the BRW richest women list. So I guess agree – the ‘health industry (whether it’s ‘lifestyle’ people or “Big Sick” people) are all making a buck out of the obesity issue one way or another I guess.

    But I hope in future John you will make the distinction between public health people who are trying to address the social determinants of health, and the “health industry”.

  6. These numbers are quite realistic. Life expectancy increased in the first 50 years of the 20th century by something like 20 years.

    Life expectancy growth then paused in the 1960s because a bunch of diseases came along, such as as cancer and so on that medicine had no particular response to because not that many people lived long enough previously to succumb to these illnesses in large numbers.

    Considerable progress was then made against a range of diseases with cancer survival rates on average doubling in the last 20 to 30 years.

    Another medical breakthrough, such as through genetic mapping or whatever the case may be could lead to another sharp boost in life expectancy growth.

    My simple test is very crude and is based on watching the world at War television series made in the 1970s.

    The old soldiers interviewed in that TV series were interviewed in the 1960s and no later than the 1970s. They would have been in their 50s and 60s, and my word did they look old, much older than people in their 50s and 60s now look in the 21st century.

    These days it is very hard to work out whether people of 40, 50 or 60 unless they’re really falling apart and not looking after themselves.

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