When I think about the future, I am optimistic about all the ways individuals, communities and our entire society can benefit from the opportunities of longevity. I see opportunities for people to live productive lives filled with learning, contributing and rewarding new experiences, even as individuals reach their 90s and beyond. In the society I envision, good health would generally last longer than it does today, and more people would enjoy economic security through the end of their lives.
But, longer life isn’t evenly distributed…education, income, race, and gender—really matter. The big winners in the lifespan lottery are the affluent and educated who have the greatest chance of living longer lives. Women in the top 1 percent of income have a life expectancy that’s 10 years longer than women in the bottom 1 percent. Life expectancy at birth is four and a half years longer for white men than black men.
And where you live also matters. I live just seven miles from where I work in Washington, D.C. But the expected lifespan for people who live in my suburb is seven years longer than those who live in capital of the United States. And perhaps most shocking: for some Americans, life expectancy is dropping. In some states, women without a high school education lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008.
Economists like me often talk about disparities in terms of income or wealth inequality. This goes well beyond that—we’re talking about years of life. That’s time with family. Time making a contribution in the world. Our greatest longevity challenge is making sure that all Americans get the same chance at longer lives.