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Future Development

Can higher mortality be a sign of progress?

Editor's Note:

To kick off the Future Development blog in 2019, we present the first in a four-piece series about the future of development.

On January 1, 2019, as we entered the last year of the decade, over 395,000 babies were born, more than half in Asia and around a third in Africa. What will their life look like? How long will they live?

In many ways, these children can consider themselves lucky. While global news headlines can make us believe that everything is getting worse, the opposite is true, especially if you project these children’s lives forward. They will be healthier, wealthier, and better educated than their peers in previous generations. They will also live longer. A girl born today can expect to live 80 years (the world average for girls). In South Korea or Japan, the expectation is 97 years, which means a girl born there today will most likely make it comfortably into the next century (see population.io where you can also check out your own life expectancy).

Never has life expectancy been so high, which means more and older people. The increase in life expectancy is mostly because of a sharp decline in child mortality, but also thanks to improvements in longevity. That means more people alive at any point in time: Even though the number of children has stabilized at around 2 billion, the world’s population is still growing rapidly thanks to a swelling number of adults and elderly.

This is also why the number of people dying each year is still rising, albeit slowly. In 2000, an estimated 53 million people died; in 2019, it will be almost 60 million. Paradoxically, this is a sign of progress: Higher mortality is just a reflection of the fact that we have a larger population. And we have a larger population because the actual probability of dying across all age groups has declined. This decline is driving a profound shift in the age at which people die. In the past, many children and working adults failed to make it to old age. If you reached the current standard retirement age of 65, you were considered a “Mathusalem.” Today, the majority of people who die are relatively old.

We were able to identify a global tipping point in 2007: For the first time ever, the number of old people dying outnumbered that of young people.

To understand mortality across ages and regions of the world, Katharina Fenz (from the World Data Lab) and I calculated the trends from 2000 to 2020. We split the world’s population into four groups: children (0-17), adults of working age (18-64), seniors (65-79), and elderly (80+). We were able to identify a global tipping point in 2007: For the first time ever, the number of old people dying outnumbered that of young people. We just saw another milestone as seniors have now become the group with the highest mortality across the world, reaching 18 million deaths and thus overtaking “working adults.” Still, too many people die too young. In 2019, more than 25 million people are expected to die before they reach their 65th birthday. While child mortality declined from 12.1 million in 2000 to 7.4 million today, deaths of working age adults are stable at around 17 million people per year (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The global shift in mortality: From young to old

Figure 1. The global shift in mortality: From young to oldSource: Projections by Katharina Fenz, World Data Lab based on UN Population Prospects, 2017

By 2050, the world community should aim for zero deaths below age 65 and only a few before the age of 80 (by which time, hopefully one has had the opportunity to live a good and fulfilling life). In all other age segments, the world community should try to eliminate death, especially among children and working age adults.

  • Child mortality remains a massive challenge in Africa and Asia. This year an estimated 4.1 million children will die in Africa, which is a higher number than in any other age group. In Asia, child mortality has been cut in half (from 6.1 million) since 2000, but it remains significant (at an estimated 2.9 million) in 2019.
  • Working adults need to survive at least until they reach 65. In Africa, some 3.8 million people die as adults. If we set the benchmark at 65, 73 percent of Africans still die too young (compared to 82 percent in 2000). Asia has made the greatest advances. Its “young mortality rate” declined from 54 percent to 40 percent since 2000, but this still means that 10 million Asians will die this year as working adults. All other continents also saw a significant decline in early mortality, except North America, which already had a relatively low ratio at the beginning of this century (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Early mortality on the decline but still high in Africa

Figure 2. Early mortality on the decline but still high in Africa

Note: “Early mortality” is defined as mortality below the age of 65.
Source: Projections by Katharina Fenz, World Data Lab based on UN Population Prospects, 2017

While the age and the geography of mortality have been changing, there has also been a shift in the causes of death. Many emerging economies are now grappling with a double burden of disease. Communicable diseases such as malaria, TB, or HIV/AIDS remain a major threat, but noncommunicable diseases (e.g., diabetes, obesity, alcohol abuse) have also been rising sharply. In some more advanced economies, such as Russia, these are the reason why many male working adults are not making it to retirement.

I hope I have managed to convince you that higher absolute mortality can signal positive development trends. Still, we can do better. And since this is the season, we can start by implementing our New Year’s resolutions of leading healthier lives at every age.

Note: For questions on the underlying data model, please contact Katharina Fenz (katharina.fenz@worlddata.io).

This blog was first launched in September 2013 by the World Bank in an effort to hold governments more accountable to poor people and offer solutions to the most prominent development challenges. Continuing this goal, Future Development was re-launched in January 2015 at brookings.edu.

For archived content, visit worldbank.org »

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