Jurgen Ziewe / Shutterstock.com

Life Expectancy in 1900

Among humankind’s greatest achievements is certainly the reduction in mortality. Thanks to medical breakthroughs unimaginable just decades ago, people in developed and developing countries alike are living longer than ever. We wonder: What was the world population’s average life expectancy at the beginning of the 20th century, in 1900?

A. 60 years
B. 50 years
C. 30 years
D. 20 years

A. 60 years … is not correct.

On a worldwide basis, a life expectancy at birth of 60 years was reached only in the late 1970s. Today, four decades later, the global average is about 71 years, meaning that life expectancy rose by 4 months per year on average over that time period. Life expectancy today also differs quite significantly, between the sexes by about 4.6 years (68.6 years for males and 73.1 years for females).

According to the United Nations Population Division, the country with the highest life expectancy at birth is Japan at 83 years, followed closely by Switzerland and Spain.

B. 50 years … is not correct.

Worldwide average life expectancy at birth of 50 years was reached nearly a half century ago, in the late 1950s. However, at the start of the 20th century, a few countries in the world had already achieved this level.

In the United States and Canada, for example, life expectancy at birth in 1900 was around 47 years. In Netherlands, it was 48. In France and the United Kingdom, it was 45.

In many cases for Americans and Europeans, those born in or just prior to 1900 did not reach their expected lifespans, due to the First World War or the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.

France, for example, saw a projected life expectancy decline of about 16 years over the course of 1913-18. Others who survived would perish a generation later, during the Second World War.

As recently as a decade ago, more than half a dozen countries – nearly all in Africa – still had average life expectancies at birth below 45 years. Today, just one country, Central African Republic, has a life expectancy (barely) short of 50 years (49.8).

There are still about 20 countries – all African – in the range of 50-59 years of expected lifespan at birth. The five lowest-ranked after Central African Republic, are Sierra Leone (50.4), Chad (51.8), Côte D’Ivoire (52), Nigeria (52.1) and Lesotho (52.7).

However, even at the bottom of the scale, these countries have essentially doubled their life expectancies over the past century.

C. 30 years … is correct.

Back in 1900, it is estimated that the world’s average life expectancy at birth stood at just above 30 years.

As an indication of how far countries can progress, life expectancy in Spain – today the third-highest worldwide, (83 years in 2015) – still stood at around 30 years in the 1880s.

The United Kingdom has life expectancy data going back centuries, and with the exception of several outlier years, British life expectancy at birth has been above 30 years at least as far back as the mid-16th century.

French data, which reach back to the end of Napoleon’s reign in the early 19th century, tell a similar story, with life expectancy trends beginning in the mid-30s. Dutch data from the 1850s show a life expectancy of about 40 years.

By 1900, the average life expectancy in Asia was 28 years, while it reached 41 in the Americas and 43 in Europe. In Africa, it was just 26 in 1925 (the first period when health outcomes began improving there).

Such low levels were primarily due to the deaths of infants and young children. Subsequent reductions in the mortality rates of these groups contributed greatly to increased life expectancies at birth.

D. 20 years … is not correct.

An average life expectancy at birth of 20 years is extremely low. It is indicative of especially high death rates among infants, children and young adults. During the Roman Empire, for example, Romans had an approximate life expectancy of just 22 to 25 years.

Most world regions started their “health transitions” to better outcomes at a life expectancy level of about mid-to-late 20s.

Life expectancy increases typically reflect one or more key demographic shifts, such as reduced infant mortality, increased survival among adults – often by reducing disease and violence – and greater health equality in a society, between the rich and poor.

Back in 1845, someone who had actually survived to age 70 (usually wealthy), was likely to live another 9 years to age 79, while an average infant would only be expected to live to 40.

While the gap in the life expectancies of rich and poor has shrunk considerably, it still exists, even in advanced societies. In the United States, for example, the richest 1% of men live 14.6 years longer than the poorest 1% of men, while the difference for women is about 10 years.

Some estimates also show that workers who did manual labor may live several years less than those in white-collar jobs. In Germany, for example, a male mine worker at age 40 has a life expectancy 14.4 years shorter than man of the same age working in social services or education.

Word count: 842