It’s nothing personal. We’re good at living short and brutal lives. Indeed we’ve even codified an approach to life that ameliorates the shortness and brutalness: ‘Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’, ‘Make hay while the sun shines’.

Today, lives are not short and brutal. We do not roam the lush plains of the Omo River near the Kenya-Ethiopia boarder in groups of twenty just trying to stay alive, like we did 195,000 years ago. “We are not setting rigging on Navy ships at the age of fourteen”We are not setting rigging on Navy ships at the age of fourteen without good food or good care, like the sailors of the 1700’s. And we do not deal with infant mortality rates that would see almost every family suffer the loss of a child (at least), like the city dwellers of the 1800’s. But we got pretty good at dealing with it: loss was ever present, so learned to go for the known safe option; loss was ever present, so we learned to discount the future heavily because we may never get there.

However, the unsuitability today of tactics derived yesterday is a cause for celebration rather than a commiseration; it is the effect of living longer, healthier lives.

So how long? How different? How much change in life expectancy has there really been? Bring on the facts.

As Professor James Vaupel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany tells us in conversation with Wesley Stephenson for BBC Radio 4’s show ‘More or Less’:

“Life expectancy has been increasing by about 2.5 years per decade, that’s three months per year, six hours per day.”

And this has been happening in England since 1850 – the dawn of industrialisation. “Life expectancy . . . increasing . . . six hours per day”So, anytime in the last 162 years, a child born a week after another would have a life expectancy nearly two days longer. I’m aware that 162 years might seem like a long time, but we’ve been ‘training’ for shortness and brutalness for [rightcol]
195,000 years. Those that are of retirement age today are pretty-much the grandchildren of Victorians – the architects of this great leap forward in life expectancy. Evolutionarily speaking 162 years is only the blink (of a blink, of a blink), of an eye.

The medical journal The Lancet crystallised the outcome of longer lives in a paper exploring the challenges ahead for managing ageing populations

“…most babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and other countries with long life expectancies will celebrate their 100th birthdays”

This is extraordinary, no? And the authors are confident the ageing process is modifiable to the point where we will live long without severe disability.

We have a phenomenally speedy increase in life expectancy coupled with quality of life.

If you ever wanted a one-line ‘pub fact’ that gets to the heart of this change, one evocation we can attribute to the researchers from the popular BBC TV show ‘QI’ – who call themselves the ‘QI elves’ – tweeted this recently:

“Of all the people in the world who have ever lived to be 65, two-thirds are alive today.”

Evolutionarily speaking, we are ancient creatures living in modern times – thousands of years of short and brutal lives have left us with techniques that less and less relevant.

It’s no wonder we’re no good at saving for pensions, huh?

For more on pensions: Shlomo Benartzi: Saving for tomorrow, tomorrow | Video on

For more on this speak with us

Also, as co-founders and supporters of the London Behavioural Economics Network, join the Meetup group and Facebook group for more details and events

Privacy Preference Center