The Myth of Increasing Life Expectancy and Its Social Policy Implications

Robert E. Parker, Vianett G. Achaval

Abstract


This paper concerns official “average life expectancy” data, and their use by demographers in a way that appears common-sensical and valid, but are neither. The notion that Americans have, and continue to experience ever-increasing life expectancy is a widely held myth in U.S. society. The Census Bureau states Americans’ life expectancy advanced 30 years between 1900 and 2013. Accompanying this myth is the idea that Americans are generally working longer while experiencing an extended lifespan. But these commonly shared assumptions about American life are dubious. The increase in average life expectancy among Americans has been achieved by reducing the infant mortality rate, not by increasing additional years at the end of the life cycle. An examination of age-specific death rates combined with an understanding of the importance of the infant mortality rate makes the “life expectancy myth” transparent. Upon considering these aspects of official life expectancy, the implications of this misunderstanding, specifically as it pertains to Social Security, will be examined.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5296/jsr.v8i2.11138

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