Heroic Age – 20th-century survivor Frank McNally on the 21st century’s greatly improved life expectancy

An Irishman’s Diary

Economics-minded readers will be familiar with the term “lagging indicator”, referring to delayed effects of past conditions. The classic example is the unemployment rate, which can remain low after the start of a recession and, for similar reasons, can continue increasing after the recession ends.

But I was amused this week by a Twitter exchange in which the phenomenon was also cited to explain those figures showing that Irish people now have the EU’s highest life expectancy. In fact, average expectancy as of 2020 – 82.6 years – was slightly down on the year before. It’s just that Ireland’s fall was lower than elsewhere, pushing us into the overall lead.

Questioning whether this reflected current realties, however, one commentator tweeted as follows: “It would be fair to say, would it not, that life expectancy lags as a metric. It’s not a reflection of where we are now. Young folk locked out of the housing market may not feel comforted by this news, for example.”

And okay, the last point is fair enough. Life in Ireland remains far from perfect, even if the average new-born can now expect 83 years of it. If you're already in your 20s or 30s, by contrast, you might well secretly favour a cull of everyone over 40, to free up space.

But given that expectancy has been rising strongly for at least 20 years, it’s the suggestion that this is a lagging indicator of previous conditions I found bitterly amusing. I speak as a survivor of the 20th century and specifically of the 1970s and 80s. Being young then was not much fun either. It was also a lot more dangerous than it is today.

At the risk of exaggerating, I suggest it’s a small miracle that anyone born within a decade of 1975 in Ireland is still alive. Consider the evidence. The houses we grew up in were death traps. We didn’t wear seatbelts, never mind baby harnesses. We ate food without use-by dates and could easily open the lids of all our parent’s medicine bottles.

The Troubles were raging. On the plus side, we were far less likely to be killed by those than by reckless drivers, who were mowing people down at a rate that, if there had been bullets involved, would have forced the UN to intervene.

If you grew up on a farm, you drank unpasteurised milk. Peanuts were consumed openly in schools. And never mind carcinogenic turf fires, your entire childhood was spent in clouds of tobacco smoke.

I know a man who recalls a family outing once when, rounding a bend, the car door flew open and his sister fell out. They all laughed afterwards. And why not? If her father was pipe-smoker, as seems likely, she was safer in the ditch.

So no, I doubt the increased life expectancy of the 21st century is a lagging indicator of conditions in the 20th, although undoubtedly some sane decisions were taken back then, of the health-and-safety-gone-mad variety, from which we are benefiting.

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On a not unrelated subject, meanwhile, reader Rebecca Jones has taken to me task for yesterday's column about Ernest Shackleton. Specifically, she disagrees with my suggestion (quoting others) that, whatever his shortcomings, the Kildare-born explorer was "a man you would want beside you in an emergency".

On the contrary, says Rebecca: “Having read a few books about the Endurance, and other polar voyages of the time, personally, I wouldn’t want Shackleton anywhere near me”.

As to his supposed virtue in never losing a man, she goes on: “If the Endurance crew hadn’t managed to talk him out of his preferred course of action after losing the ship (dragging lifeboats across the ice, damaging both men and lifeboats), they’d likely all have died.” It’s also worth remembering, she adds, “that three people did die from the Aurora – the supply ship for the Endurance trekkers that Shackleton had sent into equally perilous conditions. Everyone forgot about them.”

The early decades of the 20th century are known as the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration. This may be justified, suggests Rebecca. Yet for the British expeditions at least, they were a shambolic age too.

“There was obviously still a lot to be learned about polar conditions, but they seemed to take a perverse pride in being underprepared and doing things the hard way, because good British valour was all you really needed and there was no honour in trying to save time or calories.

“Meanwhile [Roald] Amundsen focused on what would work, and it did. The British reaction to Norwegian success was to glorify their own honourable failures and cast Amundsen as a low-down cheat. As with so many problematic attitudes of the British Empire, it seems the lessons still haven’t been learned.”