Buried deep in a note towards the end of a recent bulletin published by the British government’s statistical agency was a startling revelation. On average, people in the UK are now projected to live shorter lives than previously thought.

In their projections, published in October 2017, statisticians at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that by 2041, life expectancy for women would be 86.2 years and 83.4 years for men. In both cases, that’s almost a whole year less than had been projected just two years earlier. And the statisticians said life expectancy would only continue to creep upwards in future.

As a result, and looking further ahead, a further one million earlier deaths are now projected to happen across the UK in the next 40 years by 2058. This number was not highlighted in the report. But it jumped out at us when we analysed the tables of projections published alongside it.

It means that the 110 years of steadily improving life expectancy in the UK are now officially over. The implications for this are huge and the reasons the statistics were revised is a tragedy on an enormous scale.

The stagnation in life expectancy is no longer being treated as a “blip”. It is now projected to be the new norm. But the ONS does not explicitly state this in its projections for the future. To calculate the figure of a million lives lost you have to subtract all the future deaths now predicted in the 2017 report, which was based on data from 2016, from those projected two years ago, based on a 2014 projection.

Every year up until at least the year 2084, people across the UK are now expected to die earlier. Already in the 12 months between July 2016 and June 2017, we calculated that an additional 39,307 more people have died than were expected to die under the previous projections. Over a third, or 13,440, of those additional deaths have been of women aged 80 or more who are now dying earlier than was expected. But 7% of these extra deaths in 2016-17 were of people aged between 20 and 60: almost 2,000 more younger men and 1,000 more younger women in this age group have died than would have if progress had not stalled. So whatever is happening is affecting young people too.

The projection that there will be a million extra deaths by 2058 is not due to the fact that there will simply be more people living in the UK in the future. By contrast, the ONS now projects less inward migration. The million extra early deaths are not due to more expected births: the ONS now projects lower birth rates. The extra million early deaths are simply the result of mortality rates either having risen or having stalled in recent years. The ONS now considers that this will have a serious impact on life expectancy in the UK and population numbers for decades to come.

If you are in your forties or fifties and live in the UK this is mostly about you. Almost all of the million people now projected to die earlier than before – well over four-fifths of them – will be people who are currently in this age group: 411,000 women and 404,000 men aged between 40 and 60. Child, infant mortality and still births have also not improved recently – and again this has recently been linked to under-funding resulting in under-staffing in the NHS.

It easy to dismiss these statistics with remarks such as: “people live too long nowadays anyway” and: “I wouldn’t want to live that long”. But older people are important and grandparents are often a formative part of a child’s life. Because many people in the UK are now having children at older ages, this will translate into more people not seeing their grandchildren grow up. But, above that, longer, healthier lives have been the most important marker of social progress in Britain for well over a century. And now, for the first time in a century, we are no longer expected to see the rates of improvement we have become used to.

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And on how demography need not be destiny see (also published November 2017):

Why Demography Matters?

Why Demography Matters?