Don’t trust life’s laws of averages


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I retired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last December, but it didn’t last long.

I’m now working as chief advocate for National Seniors Australia. It’s a nonprofit organization with 200,000 members representing those over age 50. I’ve quickly discovered people who turn 50 don’t want to be seen, or referred to, as a senior. When they turn 60 or 70, they still resist it.

A lot of people seem to think they’ll live to 100. So, 50 is the new 40 — or even 30.

Joe Hockey is the former Australian treasurer who now is Australia’s US ambassador. In the leadup to the 2015 Australian federal budget, he made an extraordinary prediction. He said it was “highly probable” a child born today was going to live to be 150.

Call me a cynic, but I reckon all this talk about how long we’re going to live is designed to soften us up for an increase in taxes and a raft of other social changes. It was used to push the pension age from 65 to 67. What’s next, 70? Then 75?

The superannuation and securities industry also has a vested interest in saying you will live “on average” a lot longer. It argues that the longer you live, the more you spend, and the more you’ll need to save. We’re told a couple will need $1 million in savings to have a “comfortable” retirement.

A PRICE TAG ON RETIREMENT

But what’s really going on?

When 2016 Australian census figures are released, I’ll check them closely. The data from the last two life tables had some fascinating figures buried away. The 2012 table showed men and women in their 80s and 90s dying sooner than the 2007 table. The most recent data showed the Grim Reaper is turning up a month sooner. And that was same story in the previous table. So, we did reach “peak aging” a decade ago and now are in decline.

Those tough 80- to 90-year-olds in the data collected 10 years ago were born between the end of the Great War and the start of the Great Depression. They survived childhood without antibiotics and lived through World War II. They grew up without television and fast food.

But the 80-year-olds of today aren’t tempered by the same world. They were teenagers in the 1950s. Think of Elvis. He’d be 82 if he were alive. He’s now in rock ‘n’ roll heaven with George Michael, Michael Jackson, Prince and a string of others who didn’t live to see 60, let alone three score and 10.

When you read, “In 1900, the average life expectancy was almost 50, but today it’s more than 80,” you could be fooled into thinking you’ll live to 100 and your grandchildren will join Joe Hockey’s 150-year-olds of the future. But what was the life expectancy of someone who reached 65 in 1900? Almost all my grandparents, great grandparents and even great great-grandparents lived beyond 70. Some died in their 80s. They didn’t die at 50.

Imagine a family of four in 1900. Two children die in their first year of life. The other two live to be 80. The average life expectancy in that family is 40. Average life expectancy was dragged down by disease, war, smoking rates and infant mortality. The flu epidemic at the end of World War I killed more than the war itself. It was particularly deadly in 20- to 40-year-olds. The big leap forward happened after World War II, with mass vaccination and the elimination of childhood diseases.

WHAT THE DATA REALLY SAY

Professor Howard Friedman, a US research scientist and co-author of the Longevity Project, says data over the last 80 years show life expectancy, once you reach 65, has gone up only marginally.

“A baby boomer reaching retirement age today can expect to live about 18 years, compared to his or her grandparents, who could expect to live 15 years,” he said. He reminds us “the correct evaluation involves life expectancy at 65, not at birth.”

He can’t see any great changes ahead in the US given the problems of an “obese, sedentary, junk-food population with millions of smokers, alcoholics, drug abusers, reckless drivers and neglected children.”

The situation is similar in Australia. Victorian police seized almost a billion dollars of meth amphetamine in Melbourne last month. A couple of weeks later, in South Australia, three men associated with an outlaw motorcycle gang were caught with a shipping container loaded with $119 million of crystal methamphetamine. That’s the tip of the iceberg.

Then there’s the problem of obesity and diabetes. It would be a brave government that enacted a sugar tax, but it may be needed if we are to maintain our present life expectancy. The tax on cigarettes helped people quit and extend thousands of lives.

Bob Hope said: “You know you’re getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.” He reached a century in the game of life. But these days, for every Bob Hope, there’s a John Belushi. Jim Morrison reminded us just before he joined the list of rock stars dead at 27 that “no one gets out alive.” It’s just a question of how long you’ve got.

Be skeptical of people talking about averages. Don’t assume this generation will live longer than the last. Work at being fit and healthy because those life tables look like they have turned.   TJ  

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