September 11, 2014
Life Spans Not Falling for Less Educated
A September 2012 article on page one of The New York Times reported “disturbingly sharp drops” in life expectancy between 1990 and 2008 for Americans who do not complete high school – five years less for white women and three years less for white men.
This flatly contradicted past studies documenting rising longevity throughout the developed world. Much was also at stake in this dramatic new finding for U.S. retirement experts concerned about the growing financial pressures on retirees from what they’d assumed were virtually uninterrupted gains in longevity
Everyone wants to live longer, but it’s expensive. So who’s right?
In reaction to the 2012 study, a new group of researchers, funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, took another run at calculating life spans and found that life expectancy is not on the decline for Americans with the least education.
The researchers, from the University of Michigan and Urban Institute, used the same data as in the 2012 study – U.S. Census data and National Vital Statistics. But they refined the statistical technique. One criticism of the prior paper had been its blunt measure of Americans with the least education, defined simply as those who had not graduated high school.
Yet the segment of the U.S. population that doesn’t graduate high school has shrunk dramatically, becoming an increasingly selective – and disadvantaged – group. That’s a change from the experience of people born a century ago for whom leaving high school to begin working or marry was the norm.
To correct for the shift in educational attainment, the researchers defined Americans with the least education in any particular birth cohort as those falling in the bottom one-quarter in terms of how many years of education they had completed. To determine whether longevity for this group has changed over time, they analyzed the mortality trends between 1990 and 2010, by race and sex, for people born between 1925 and 1985.
They found only negligible changes for white women in this low education group, while longevity actually increased for white men. Life expectancy also rose for black and Hispanic men and women who drop out of high school.
The new study did confirm another finding from the 2012 study – that longevity is rising faster for more educated Americans. But, the authors do “not see any evidence” that people with less education are not living as long as they had in the past.
Full disclosure: The research cited in this post was funded by a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Retirement Research Consortium, which also funds this blog. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the blog’s author and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA or any agency of the federal government.