How inequality is the vampire of our lives

On one hand, the ever-increasing lifespan of our species is perhaps the single greatest testament to the rapid advances and innovations of the last two centuries of human existence. On the other hand, as with even the most mundane technical advancement, the benefits accrue overwhelmingly to those with money and power and very little to those capital has decreed to be at the bottom of the order.

But, unlike those many technological breakthroughs which change us only as consumers or as faceless agents providing labor-hours of production, the limits to our existence are at the very core of our human being. The years stolen from us by the massive inequality of 21st century capitalist society are a deep threat to this core.

A recent paper (available here) by University of Michigan researchers shows the cold facts. While the paper’s conclusions are generally positive about increasing survival rates to late ages across most socioeconomic groups since 1990, there remains a massive gap between black and white.

For example, survival rates to age 80 for those alive at age 25† are about 15 percentage points higher for a white college graduate than a black college graduate. This, of course, displays the well-documented within-class divisions that are attributable to the continuing legacy of a white supremacist system, but above and beyond the usual measures of material wherewithal.

Just as alarming are the incredible class divisions. A white male high school graduate has approximately the same survival rate to age 70 as a white college graduate has to age 80 (for a black male with a high school education, that rate corresponds to age 65). And, while life expectancy at age 25 has increased overall since 1990, for the lower quartile of educational attainment there has been little to no change.

If, as Piketty puts forward, inequality will inevitably increase under capitalism, this is perhaps the most startling inequality of all. The next few decades may bring incredible advances in lifespan in the forms of cures for cancer, gene therapy, and so on. But the current system ensures that these gains will accrue first and foremost to the non-productive classes, and, at least in the United States, within classes to white people first and foremost. We could be looking at horizons of lifespans differing by many decades.

All of this begs the question: how many years of our very existence can be taken from us and ground into dust upon the twin unholy altars of capitalism and racism before we rise up and say “enough?”

† Expected years of life after surviving to age 25 is a conceptually and methodologically sound figure for measuring life expectancy in a policy-relevant manner. Other measures of life expectancy experience biases that make their policy relevance question. For example, life expectancy at birth is highly influenced by infant mortality rates and life expectancy at 65 is, obviously, biased towards the people who tend to survive to 65. The researchers involved in the referenced paper should be commended for their choice, and such a statistic should enter into more common usage in population research and policy discussion.