The Future and the Church, Part II: Longer Human Lives

There has always been a need for those persons who could be called finishers. Their ranks are few, their opportunities many, their contributions great. …I pray humbly that each one of us may be a finisher in the race of life and thus qualify for that precious prize: eternal life with our Heavenly Father in the celestial kingdom. I testify that God lives, that this is his work, and ask that each may follow the example of his Son, a true finisher.

-President Monson

The history of human lifespan predictions is essentially the history of people theorizing that there’s some biological, natural ceiling for average lifespan, only to have that ceiling shattered. A derivative of a famous visualization in Science shows this history in one pithy image, with the sidebars being different hypothesized ceilings to average human life expectancy. 

However, like Moore’s Law predicting the increase of computing power, there’s little in the way of underlying theory driving this observation, and it too has to end at some point unless you think humans have it in them to eventually live to be a million years old. However, we still don’t have a clear picture for where that ceiling is, so for now extrapolating forward past trends that have been uncannily accurate in the past (specifically, we gain 2.5 more years of life for every decade since the 1840s) seem to be our best estimate for now. When we do this we find that “most children born in the last two decades in countries with high life expectancy will, if past progress continues, celebrate their 100th birthday.” It is also worth noting that historically increases in life expectancy are accompanied by decreases in age-associated health problems, so it’s not like the extra years will just be spent hooked up to breathing machines. 

The primary thought that immediately comes to mind when I think about this is that my children could easily be living and active in the year 2120, which is so far in the future that it makes anything non-offspring related that I’m working on now seem irrelevant in the long run.

But since this is a Church-related blog, what would a church look like in a world where most people in developed countries can plan on reaching their 100th birthday, with 110 being the new 100? I can think of a few implications, in no particular order:

  1. More senior missionaries. This is somewhat contingent on the retirement staying the same, which it probably won’t because of aging pressures in a world with fewer children. Still, I suspect the additional years of life will outpace increases in the retirement age, although I might be wrong. I don’t know when the idea of a “senior missionary” started, but it seems like a relatively new phenomenon. We couldn’t have senior missionaries until we had retirement, and this trend will probably continue. 
  2. Slower age-related changes in the Church as a whole. More and more the academic research suggests that cultural change happens “one funeral at a time”, since adults rarely change their minds in persistent, substantive ways once they reach a certain age. This, in addition to the selection effects I’ve talked about before, where less conservative people leave the Church, suggests that the Church will remain a “conservative” community in the sense that the norms and values of the older generations will be more represented than the values and norms of the younger generations. However, society as a whole will go through a similar dynamic as it ages so this isn’t saying that the Church will necessarily shift relative to society.
  3. Slower age-related changes to Church administration. The church is structurally geared towards conservatism as the presidency is determined by seniority. If older people tend to be more conservative, and the leadership of the church is determined by seniority, which is correlated to age, then the top leadership, which counts for a lot in a centralized organization like the Church, will tend to be more conservative. I like this dynamic, as it helps assure that the president is less susceptible to temporary social whims and fashions, but I know some disagree. Extended lifespans accentuate this dynamic. For example, if a younger apostle is called into the Quorum of the 12 at, say, Elder Bednar’s age of 52, that decision will potentially determine the leadership of the church a half century into the future. This shields the top governing bodies even more from the whims of the day because of the lag between the initial appointment and the presidency is so large. We may be seeing our first centenarian prophet soon, but given trends it is likely that a centenarian prophet will become common, with the possibility of a significant proportion of the Quorum of the 12 over 90. (Fun fact, Emeritus Presiding Patriarch Eldred G. Smith almost made it to supercentenarian status at 106.)
  4. Fewer missionary evacuations It’s a reasonably supported empirical finding that older countries are more politically stable. It’s hard to man the barricades when you have a bad back. Because of population aging (both from increases in lifespan as well as declines in fertility), the future will likely be a “pax geriatrica” (I didn’t coin the term but I can’t remember where I saw it). This stability will in turn potentially help the Church put down roots and grow in polities where it is allowed. 

Of course, how this interacts with all of the other future changes is speculative.



11 comments for “The Future and the Church, Part II: Longer Human Lives

  1. I don’t know about an increase in senior missionaries. As the population gets older, the government will raise the age to retire on social security, decrease what Medicare will cover, and decrease the amount paid out for SS, so only the rich will be able to retire, only the very healthy will be healthy enough to go on senior missions. Thus there will be a reduction in senior missions. As the giant corporation get richer and the average citizen gets poorer, fewer people will be able to save for retirement, and only the very rich will be able to afford the drugs or medical treatments to prolong their life. So, the average member of the church will still die at 65-80, while the church leadership get older and older in comparison.

  2. I don’t know. On our senior mission, two of the brethren serving celebrated their 80th birthday in the field. So the healthy-enough-to-serve thing varies from person to person. Research suggests that staying employed until an older age helps preserve cognitive abilities, which is always a plus.

    Since Medicare does not offer coverage outside the US, the church offers a health insurance policy at a price and with coverage that the seniors with whom we served were pleased. Seniors in Singapore, which has excellent healthcare, had surgical procedures in country at a fraction of the US cost. (I happened to have health insurance that also worked overseas, so we did not purchase the church coverage.)

    One thing that I did not realize about senior missions was how many great opportunities there are for single senior sisters to serve. For a season, our mission had an “office couple” that was two sisters who were incredibly well qualified and competent. When I took a family to the Manila temple, we were helped by a widowed sister in the family history center, who quickly solved a lot of problems and allowed the family to prepare many names. A year or so later, that same sister showed up in an online MTC language training for which I was volunteering; she was headed back out for another mission, this time as an office missionary in the country where I had served.

  3. Stephen C: Thanks for the interesting analysis. In general, I think you are right about the trends. One other church trend worth considering is how long we will continue to use 110 years since birth as the cutoff for temple work. But I think there is some nuance that could be added to your analysis. My understanding is that life expectancy is often determined by birth year. For instance, in the forecasts I have seen for the United States, the average member of the Silent Generation will live to age 57-66, Baby Boomers will live to age 67-70, Gen-X will live to age 70-74, Millennials will live to age 74-76, and Gen-Z will live to age 76-79. One implication is that we might have to wait until Generation X reaches retirement age before we see a significant increase in the number of full-time senior missionaries. I also wonder if you have an estimate on when lifespans in the U.S. will rebound from their recent decline. My understanding is that the average lifespan in the U.S. dropped from 78.9 in 2019 to 77 in 2020, largely because of the pandemic, and could drop even further in 2021, since there were more Covid-19 deaths that year than in 2020. But perhaps a more interesting question is whether being an active member of the church in the U.S. still adds several years to our lifespan. The studies I have seen from about 1980 to 2010 suggest that being an active member boosted our lifespan by about 8 years. But when I go through the numbers in the “List of U.S. states and territories by life expectancy” Wikipedia article, the additional lifespan years we get from being an active church member seem to have diminished or disappeared.

  4. I agree with Anna. Further, the world is a very expensive place. Younger folks with college degrees can barely pay the rent. Add onto that the church’s continued ideology to marry and have children before you even start your career, and more and more parents and grandparents are becoming part-time caregivers to these young families as they try to finish university and start their jobs. My hunch is that this will lead to less senior missionaries. But you probably won’t find any of that in the data.

  5. ?@ Anna and Chadwick: Yes, the decrease in the retirement age might offset the gains in increased life expectancy. Time will tell. ?

    @Naismith: Women tend to 1) stay in religion more than men, and 2) live longer. Putting those two things together I suspect there are more potential senior sister missionaries than senior elders.

    @ Sterling: That’s interesting about the 110 year cutoff, I wasn’t aware of that. Yes, there is certainly more nuance to add. If we assume that the increases in lifespan are monotonic, then this expansion of older people will happen gradually, so we won’t wake up in 30 years to suddenly find a lot more senior missionaries. The time trend in the graph shows average life expectancy for the top country, whether the US will look like a top tier country in however many years given our public health issues, opiate epidemic, etc., is another question.

    That’s interesting about the “active Church member” longevity research, and I’m surprised that you found one from 2010, I thought that research was more dated.

  6. Keep in mind that life expectancy is basically an average (more precisely an expected value, if you did them in a math or statistics class). Historical societies with life expectancies in the 40s had many people living until their 70s and 80s; they also had many people dying as young children or infants. So when life expectancy increases it does not necessarily mean old people are living longer–it could be entirely due to child mortality decreasing.

    When we talk about “life expectancy” we generally mean “life expectancy at birth,” meaning how long a newborn baby can expect to live (“expect” in the mathematical sense). But people also calculate “life expectancy at age 65” meaning how much longer someone who has lived to 65 can expect to live (highly relevant for retirement planning or funding Social Security). That’s a better measure of whether old people are living longer.

    In 1960, life expectancy at birth in the US was 69.9 years, and in 2019 it was 78.9, an increase of 9 years. (But it was basically flat 2015-2019 and then fell in 2020 due to the pandemic.) Over the same time period, life expectancy at age 65 went from 12.8 years (i.e. if you make it to 65 you can expect to live to 77.8) to 18.2 years, an increase of 5.4 years.

    So if you’re focusing on how much longer old people will live, and if you’re mostly interested in the US, I’d say 1 year/decade is more realistic than 2.5. But 2009-2019 life expectancy at 65 only went up half a year, and it’s unclear if that was an aberration or the new trend line. The pandemic will make it hard to tell that for a while yet.

  7. @ RLD: That’s true that the life expectancy is an average, and average number of expected years left at, say, 65, isn’t going to match up with life expectancy because of deaths prior to 64. However, my understanding (and the cited article bears this out I think) is that we’re essentially running out of potential gains in life expectancy from anywhere except middle and old age. Infant and childhood mortality is essentially zero, so increases in life expectancy have to come from things like better cancer or cardiovascular disease treatment, basically because those are old people problems.

  8. Yes, and they spend a good bit of time showing that mortality in old age is decreasing, and presumably can continue to decrease.

    I’m not really demographer and I hope I’m not making a mistake here, but I think we can decompose an increase in life expectancy at birth (9 years from 1960 to 2019 in the US) into a component due people who live to 65 living longer (5.6 years) and a component due to fewer people dying before 65 (3.4 years).

    I’m having a hard time reconciling that with the claim in the Christiansen paper that’s the linked paper’s source, that “If the pace of increase in life expectancy in developed countries over the past two centuries continues through the 21st century, most babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and other countries with long life expectancies will celebrate their 100th birthdays.” I don’t have time to dig into it though, so I’ll just have to note that 1) forecasts vary a lot, as the paper describes, and 2) both are peer-reviewed papers so the claim should be taken seriously.

  9. @RLD: Yes. they can and do decompose life expectancy into different intervals of ages in life tables:

    However, as far as I know published prognostications for life expectancy don’t get too detailed on exact ages besides generally making the point that as young and middle-age disease decline, the only places left for survivorship to increase are the older ages.

  10. I appreciate your patience with my quibbling, Stephen C. A thought more along the lines of what you were looking for:

    I predict that as life expectancies increase, and especially as premature mortality becomes more and more rare, members will have more and more of a problem with Nephi killing Laban, or stories like God killing the first-born of Egypt. They’ll also have a hard time understanding historical attitudes towards killing, war, and risk-taking in general (but those generally won’t cause faith crises).

    Without being aware of it, they’ll react as if Laban had lost something like 30-50 years of expected life rather than the 5-15 years he probably really had (and that’s not accounting for the impending Babylonian conquest). And for them premature death will be an unexpected tragedy, while for Nephi and Laban it would have been par for the course (which is probably relevant to why both were willing to inflict it on the other, though only one succeeded).

    On the other hand, I suspect this shift has already occurred, for the most part, as a result of the changes in life expectancy that happened in the 20th century. If any of the community history experts see this, I’d be very curious about the history of objections to Nephi killing Laban.

  11. Actually, the premise of the article would have been far more accurate prior to 2008. Yet, since that time, during the Obama Presidency (8 yrs) we lost 2 yrs, then during the Trump Presidency (4 yrs) we lost another 1 year, and now during the Biden Presidency to date (1 yr, 2 months) we have lost another 1 year taking us down to 79 yr life expectancy from the previous age 83. Yet to be seen if this is a trend or the declines under Pres’ Trump and Biden are solely due to COVID. The deaths from COVID were certainly much higher under Pres Biden which no doubt was the major factor in the one year decline in one year of Presidency. The most notable change was under Pres Obama which had nothing to do with COVID. As such, life expectancy is not getting longer anymore but has reversed its trend although the media has ignored the story.

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