How is life expectancy relevant for human rights? High levels of life expectancy can mean a long life of oppression and cruelty, but it’s fair to say that a long life is generally beneficial for human rights, and that low average life expectancy rates are indicators of human rights violations. The longer people life, on average, the more they can do with their lives, and the more they can enjoy their freedom. If people’s lives are shorter, on average, it’s likely that this is because of human rights violations. For example, because:
- their healthcare isn’t provided for (and healthcare is a human right)
- their poverty traps them in a vicious circle of poverty and ill health (and poverty is a human right)
- their governments send them to war, etc.
So it’s useful to note that life expectancy, over the course of human history, has risen sharply, especially during modern times:
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
Life expectancy during much of pre-modern history averaged just below 30 years. Part of the reason for such a low figure is that many children died at a very young age, pulling down the average life expectancy. Those who didn’t die young had a good chance of surviving to what we now call “middle age”.
After the Industrial Revolution many more children survived into adulthood and by the beginning of the 20th century average life expectancy in the developed world was close to 50, whereas for the world as a whole it was only around 40 years. The figures now are 78 and 67 respectively. This graph shows the rapid and sudden improvement after centuries of stagnation:
The reason for this sudden improvement during and after the industrial revolution is a combination of improved medical technology and higher wealth. Not surprisingly, life expectancy is highly correlated with income levels – more wealth means higher investment in healthcare, less war etc. – but not in a linear fashion: the U.S. has very high GDP per capita but not higher life expectancy than some countries/regions with somewhat lower income levels (some blame the healthcare system, others the life-style choices of many Americans). And, compared to Africa, India has higher life expectancy with similar income levels (the HIV/AIDS epidemic is part of the explanation).