Life is getting longer but it is still too short.
For a good part of my life I have been an expat, working and living with my family in developing countries. It’s easier than most people imagine. If you can afford it, you get good schooling and decent healthcare and Jakarta’s shopping malls are more stylish than those of Berlin or Vienna. My first posting was in Indonesia, where we stayed five years before moving to Kenya. Both are emerging economies, now considered “middle-income”; decade-long investments in education have borne fruit and created a sizeable and vibrant talent pool among the youth, and the mobile revolution has progressed dramatically so that almost everyone now owns a cell phone. Not all is rosy though. Poverty remains widespread and visible—especially if you venture outside of expat circles—and crime can also be a big concern.
The biggest difference, however, between developed and developing worlds is the likelihood of being confronted with death. When you move to a poorer country, death becomes suddenly more present, almost a feature of every day “life.” In any single year people close to you will experience the loss of a family member or friend. In turn, this may explain why people are so focused on the short-term. For the poor, saving for the future does not make much sense if they feel that the main aim is to survive until tomorrow.
This notwithstanding, it’s useful to remind ourselves that our generation, collectively, has made impressive gains. For most of history, humans only lived until ages 30-40, and very few were lucky enough to make it beyond. Advances in public health—especially vaccines, penicillin, basic sanitation, hand washing, and malaria prevention—have reduced lethal diseases and underpinned the dramatic decline in child mortality. As a result, most of us today can expect to live a long life: 72 years on average. Advanced economies remain better off on that metric (80 years), but many non-advanced countries are catching up—especially in Asia and Latin America. Longer life expectancy together with lower fertility means that the global demographic outlook is fundamentally changing. The population “pyramid” is morphing into a “barrel,” while many countries must now deal with the challenge of aging.
Still, the grief of losing a friend or family member is universal, and people are typically not prepared for this painful experience. This high degree of unpreparedness has important implications for families and societies, including the management of inheritance. One in seven Germans is fighting over inheritance, often due to the fear of addressing this taboo subject earlier.
With colleagues, I have developed a tool which approaches this difficult topic in a somewhat playful manner. The app—www.population.io—lets you calculate your personal life expectancy with three characteristics: your current age, your home country, and your gender. Please don’t use it if you are superstitious! This is a purely statistical exercise and assumes that you are living an average lifestyle.
My case looks as follows: As a 44 year old male world citizen, I can expect to live until June 2048. By virtue of being German I gain an extra 5.5 years (to December 2053), and since I now live in Austria I can in fact hope to celebrate, in May 2054, the 100th anniversary of Germany’s first World Cup victory in 1954 (where Germany also beat Austria in the semifinals, 6-1). Not everyone may be as fortunate. If I was a citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I would lose 13 “statistical” years (see Figure 1) and a full 15 if I were Russian (by the way, Russian women are faring better, they are projected to live six years longer than their peers in DRC).
I take away two main thoughts from this statistical exercise. First, even though many countries created better living conditions for their citizens, living a long, healthy, and prosperous life is never guaranteed. Unfortunately, development can also go backwards. Second, even if you are a healthy citizen from a rich part of the world, the chances of dying earlier than planned are not negligible. In my case, there is about a 2-3 percent chance that I will die in the next 10 years. Concretely, when my class reunion convenes 10 years from now one of us is likely to be missing.
Economists like to say that “time is money,” but most of us are incredibly wasteful of this most precious currency. So, don’t wait for tomorrow for the joys in life. Enjoy your parents, grandparents, and children. Even though life is getting longer in most places, it’s still too short.
This blog builds on a TED talk held in November 2014 at TEDx Vienna. Previous posts on this topic include How your birthday reveals global demographic shifts and All about my age … and Why I’m Much Older than I Thought I was.