Politics of the Life-Span:
A critique of the demography of the life span and
its impact on social policy.
John A. Vincent
University of Exeter. U.K.
• Projections of future demographic trends in terms of
ageing populations are crucial in the process of forming
public policies, insitutional and commercial strategies.
– there are those who believe that immortality is within reach
– those who believe life expectancy will rise to 100 years or more in
this century (Optimists); and
– those who believe that life expectancy is unlikely to exceed an
average of around 85 years in the absence of radical advances in
the control of the aging process (Realists)” (Carnes and Olshansky
• Elsewhere I have written on the problems associated with
the immortalist / futurist position. Here I present a radical
deconstruction of a highly influential ‘optimist’ position.
Oeppen, Jim and James W.Vaupel (2002) “Broken
Limits to Life Expectancy” Scıence 296 (10) May
2002, pp.1029-32. www.sciencemag.org
• Oeppen and Vaupel (2002) state that there is a very high
linear correlation in the historical trend for female life
expectancy in the record-holding country;
• This trend has risen at a steady pace of 3 months per year
over the last 160 years. Japanese females life expectancy
currently 85 it will only take another 45 years to take it (or
some other record breaking country) to 100.
• They argue that all previous attempts to specify maximum
life expectancy have failed and conclude there are no limits
to life expectancy.
Oeppen and Vaupel (2002)
• “People are set to live increasingly long lives, and reaching
100 will soon be "commonplace", say experts …"As the
cost of pensions spirals there's mounting pressure... to raise
the age for retirement” …"The acute problem for society
will be how to look after all the older people” (Heap, BBC
Thursday, 9 May, 2002 );
• “Health crisis looms as life expectancy soars …Average
ageing forecasts far too low, say scientists” (Meek,
Guardian May 10, 2002).
• The original paper was written as an attack on persisteantly
over-conservative assumptions about future life
• However, their polemical project became hardened into
taken for granted alarmist ‘facts’ about future population
Critique of Oeppen and Vaupel.
• Mathematic projection without a clear theoretical base mistakes
correlation for cause.
• The paper contains no developed theory as to why life expectancy will
continue to grow without limitation.
• Insofar as this point is theorised at all, they refer to continuously
occurring gains in medical knowledge.
• They say they do not believe people will become immortal but without
any theoretical underpinning they are unable to comment on when and
how their prediction will cease to be valid.
• We could use the same correlation and show, on the basis of Oeppen
and Vaupel’s analysis, that life expectancy was zero in 1660.
• The logic of the extrapolation used by Oeppen and Vaupel could also
be used to apply to Olympic running speeds. This conclusion would be
Critique of Oeppen and Vaupel.
• The Biology of ageing has been undergoing rapid change in the last
decade with new findings and new theories.
• The significance of these findings for the potentiality of devising
methods to control, slow or reverse the fundemental ageing process is
• However, their is a clear consensus within the bio-gerontological
community that the are no current techniques capable of extending the
maximal human life span.
• “Today, aging and death are viewed as the inadvertent but inevitable
byproducts of the degradation of biological structures and processes
that evolved for growth, development, and reproduction rather than for
extended operation. These structural and functional constraints exist at
every level of biological organization (cells, tissues, organs, and organ
systems) within the individual, and their existence imposes practical
limits on the life span of individuals and the life expectancy of
populations.” Carnes and Olshanski 2002 p.510
Critique of Oeppen and Vaupel.
• The use of the most extreme longevity at any particular date and projecting
that forward almost inevitably slides from being thought of as a projection of
an extreme to a prediction about future life expectancy in general.
• World population as a whole is immune to the trends revealed in each of
Oeppen and Vaupel’s specific cases. Namely an ‘s’ shaped curve in which
secular decline follows an acceleration in life expectancy gains.
• It is critical that we do not lose sight, as so many commentators have, that the
projections refer to a succession of extremes, they do not represent the
trajectory of any measure of central tendency (an average life expectancy) or
the any single population.
• The projection may prove valid but tell us nothing at all about average life
expectancy in any particular population in the future.
• The most important factor in 20th century gains in life expectancy has been the
decline in infant mortality.
• It is at least a possibility that further advances in longevity at the oldest ages,
even though advancing at the moment, will be particularly hard to achieve in
the future. This is shown by the trends to declining gains in longevity in Japan.
Japan: life expectancy
at birth Male
at birth Female
40 at age 65 Male
at age 65 Female
Source: Statistics and Information Department, Minister's Secretariat, Ministry of Health
and Welfare, Vital Statistics of Japan.
Critique of Oeppen and Vaupel.
segmentation of populations.
• It is also to be expected that highly selective groups will
continue in the future to show rapid gains in extreme
• The concentration within demography on the Japanese
island of Okinawa is a further example of how
demographic extremes have become used to fuel debates
about population ageing in general.
• If Oeppen and Vaupel were to control for not only gender
and country, but for social class, their correlation might be
• Those deep frozen corpses in the care of the Cryonics
corporation awaiting the breakthroughs in Biology to be
able to resuscitate them tend to be very wealthy U.S.
Data sources – reliability and
• Can bureaucratic and institutional procedures in different countries
over a 160 year period consistently and reliably record the same vital
statistics. Age at death, numbers of live births are two features which
are open to cultural and historical variation in interpretation and
accuracy in official records.
• Life tables used for calculating life expectancy make assumptions
about the span of the oldest age category.
• Age specific mortality rates in the first year of life are critical to
calculating the standard measure of life expectancy at birth. However,
in historical and cultural terms what is recorded as a birth (as opposed
to other categories such as still birth, miscarriage, or not recorded at
all) is very varied. Compared to contemporary practice there is likely
to have been an under-recording of infant mortality rates in the past.
• Further in many cultures, including Japan, there has been a greater
tendency to disfavour female births and less likelihood to record them
and strive strenuously to keep them alive. 11
The cohort problem.
• Current increases in life expectancy are viewed by some as a cohort
phenomenon not necessarily a trend attributable to future ageing
• Finch and Crimmins (2004), working from the immunological theory
of ageing argue on the basis of historical data from Sweden that the
ability of people in the twentieth century to provide children with a
relatively infection free environment, as well as issues about childhood
nutrition, are an important factor in changes in later life mortality
experienced as the century progressed.
• However, influence of this factor would not be replicated by further
gains in life expectancy for subsequent cohorts. A finding which is
consistent with the predominant ‘s’ shaped pattern of gains in life
• Other researchers have questioned the long term significance in the
rise in childhood obesity, particularly linking it through epigenetic
processes to increased late life diabetes and increased risk of mortality.
Demographic projections and
• The concepts and methods of forecasting future numbers of older people are
constructed through social processes including the activities of professional bodies
and academic disciplines.
• For the actuaries their projections have very specific financial consequences. This
tends to mean that although they compete with each other over identifying trends
and market opportunities in particular segments of the population, they tend to
come together in formulating views about the future national trends.
• One of the key debates in the consultation on revisions to U.K. life tables in 2004
were about the relative merits of using extrapolation techniques as opposed to
‘decomposition’ techniques. The latter involve examining changes in to the
probability of specific causes of death and aggregating them into an age specific
• Such demographic concepts “dependency ratio” and “life expectancy” contain
embedded within them the issues, perceptions, cultural understanding of the social
groups who develop and use them. The terminology employed in these debates has
ideological as well as technical functions
• It is only possible to fully understand these ‘scientific’ debates about predictions of
future longevity if they are located in a context of political economy. How these
experts and their expertise fit into global society. 13
Should age categories be thought of
• “To refuse to criticise the notion of an ageing population,
to accept this kind of calculation and the fixedness of age
categories, is simply an admission that the threshold for
old age has not evolved for more than 200 years and will
not change for the next fifty, that the starting point of 60
years is immutable. It implies that the significance of age
does not evolve historically, that it does not constitute an
historical variable. The different ages in life – childhood,
adolescence and old age – have inspired many works, but
the thresholds defining them appear to have escaped
historical development.” (Bourdelais 1998:110-111)
Ideological framework for
• We can ask critical questions about which population changes become
social issues - who is defining those problems and to what purpose?’
• There were concerns in the first part of the 20th century about declines in
fertility, loss of population in war and the possibility of falling
• In the thirty years following the second world war the major concerns
were population growth. Population time-bombs, it was argued, were
waiting to blow up economic progress and environmental stability.
• In the last twenty years the time bomb has again become that of an
ageing population. Fears about population have shifted from over-
population to under-population - too many babies to too many old folk.
• Historically different elites have identified particular demographic
changes as a threat, and their ideologies can identify not only the cause
but also the moral responsibility for these threats. These ideologies,
having defined the problem, imply courses of action. Powerful elites
select tools to exert control to tackle the perceived crises.. In the 20C
there have been strong links between demography, eugenics and social
Political economy of population
• This changing demographic agenda is best understood as reflecting
ideological concerns of dominant elites: economic, military, political
• National and global economic elites want labour for their enterprises
and customers for their products. In general terms, if demographic
expansion promotes economic expansion all well and good, but if
rapid growth leads to instability, then concerns emerge.
• Military elites are concerned about military manpower for themselves
and their enemies, (c.f. CIA 2001).
• Political elites need to sustain state control and thus observe,
enumerate and manipulate populations.
• The elites who control the multinational firms in the global finance
industry have a specific set of interests in the success and expansion in
the management of the resources generated by “funded” pension
The agenda of the global finance industry
• The OECD (1998) Policy Brief states that population ageing could threaten future
economic growth and prosperity and suggests that yet greater “reform”. They
identify the following questions as crucial:
– “Will it continue to be possible to share societies’ resources between the working
generation and its dependent non-working members in ways that do not give rise to
unacceptable societal and inter-generational conflicts?
– How can the contribution of older people to society and economic prosperity be
– How should pension, health and long-term care best be reformed?
– Which changes in the financial infrastructure are needed to support the development of
funded pension systems?
– To what extent will ageing OECD countries be able to improve their well-being through
growing trade in goods and services and assets, in particular with younger, faster-growing
non-OECD countries?” (OECD 1998:1)
• But these questions, from the point of view of the dominant agenda, are rhetorical.
The ideology of pension fund capitalism dictates that the answers are obviously that
older people should expect less, everyone will have to contribute more towards
pensions, people will have to work longer for their pensions, the private sector
should be left to manage the funds, and we better rely on the US to make sure the
younger states do not step out of line.
• This and similar approaches tend to leave out of the equation issues of economic
growth and economic redistribution which have been critical to the successful
establishment of pension systems in the 20C. 17
• It is therefore not surprising that Oeppen and Vaupel’s paper met with
such a ready audience from powerful social groups in the global
economy and by re-iteration became reified into the facts of population
• What the paper was able to do was legitimate the interests of those
who wished to create market opportunities by dismantling state based
PAYG pension scheme by attaching the apparent credibility of
numerical demographic science to an explosive statistic.
• What we should not allow is the political and economic debates about
priorities for pension systems and economic support for elderly people
to be sidelined by apparently technical arguments about population
dynamics. Any demographic theory like any scientific theory is only a
good as the assumptions and methods on which it is based.
This presentation, and various
papers can be viewed at: