Managing Longer Lives

ROSTOCK – People in most countries are living longer and longer. Indeed, the rise in life expectancy is seen as a major looming social and economic problem. But is it?

There is, unfortunately, a twofold misunderstanding behind that question. First, the gift of much older age is not one of remote generations. In industrialized countries, the first cohorts of centenarians have already been born. Second, the challenge of longer lives is not a problem, but an opportunity. People are living longer in good health – the most important achievement of modern civilization – and societies today must adapt their educational systems and employment policies to meet the new needs and desires of people who can look forward to lifespans of a century or more.

In the healthiest countries, life expectancy has been rising since 1840 at a remarkably constant rate of about 2.5 years per decade. Life expectancy in most developing countries is increasing even faster as they catch up to the developed-country average. There are tragic exceptions in Africa and the former Soviet Union, but, on the whole, the span of healthy life is lengthening for most of the world’s people.

What this means for individuals can hardly be overvalued. Consider women in Germany, whose life expectancy rose from 45 in 1900 to 82 today – an estimate that excludes the effects of further medical progress. On the reasonable assumption that health conditions continue to improve at the rate prevailing for the last 170 years, most children born in Germany in the year 2000 will still be alive in 2100. The forecast is the same throughout Western Europe, as well as for Canada, the United States, and Japan.