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The Prospects of Life 1951-71

‘Man has made himself what he is today.’ Joe Rogaly writes how important biological changes have recently transformed his whole existence.

The most important changes in the state of mankind during the present century may not have been political, or economic, but biological. The devastating effect of a declining death rate in the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America has already been widely discussed in terms of the need for an extensive use of family planning, a faster rate of growth among backward economies, and a greater amount of aid and assistance from the rich countries of the world.

What is perhaps not quite so generally debated is the effect of demographic and other biological changes on the behaviour of people in the rich countries. Some of these effects have become particularly noticeable during the past quarter of a century, although, in almost every case what has been happening has been manifest for longer than that.

In most industrial countries, for example, the average expectation of life has increased from some forty-eight years at the beginning of this century, through sixty-two years in 1940, to around seventy years now. The figures are, of course, different in different countries.

In Britain the official life tables suggest an average expectation of life of sixty-eight-and-a-half years for a boy born in 1968 as against seventy-four-and-a-half years for a girl. Some people will live considerably longer. But most of them, if not all of them, will be dead before turning 100.

This is an important and comparatively new expectation. For many years the general assumption has been that the length of life would continue to increase; now there is a growing belief among scientists that the end of the road has been reached and that unless certain new techniques, none of which has yet been perfected, are applied, the normal average span will remain at three-score years and ten, or something not very much above that, while the infinitesimal proportion of people older than 100 will remain as small as it is now.

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