Morton Marcus: What is life expectancy, if not a numbers game?

There is a whole set of numbers we’d rather forget, so I’ll write about them today. According to data published in National Vital Statistics Reports for March 22, 2022, my life expectancy is another 6.4 years.

Life expectancy is a very important number for the insurance industry and the Congress as they debate Social Security and Medicare. It’s also studied closely by those anticipating the demise of a wealthy relative.

Caution: the data used here are from 2019, the last year before COVID had its impact lowering life expectancy for most of us. (The data can be found online at

If I were a woman, at the same age (84-85 years old), my life expectancy would be another 7.5 years. Is that “fair?” Why should a person with a slightly different chromosome get to see an extra spring and autumn?

Sorry, fellas, that’s just another payback for the lives we’ve led, or just the hand we were dealt.

But wait! Those life expectancies are for white, non-Hispanic men and women. A non-Hispanic Black man my age would have a 6.5 year expectation, a tiny improvement on my 6.4 expected years. A Black woman of the same age would have 7.8 years ahead, 109 more days than her white, non-Hispanic neighbor.

A Hispanic woman my age would enjoy an added 8.7 years, or 328 days more than the Black woman. Her male counterpart could expect 7.4 years, or one full year more than is allocated to me.

What’s that? Ah, it’s Myrtle, my abusive muse, noisily opening her bag of potato chips. “What’s cracking, lump head?” she asks with her accustomed respectfulness.

She inspects my writing and says, “There you are again, writing the little story and missing the big picture.”

Myrtle crunches a mouthful and declares, “The big picture is a guy born in 1929 had a life expectancy of 46.3 years, but a boy baby born in 2019 can expect an added 30 full years of life.

“For a petite dame arriving in ’29, the expected number was just two years longer than the little guy in the next crib. Boom,” she booms. “Comes ’19 and we got the little gal expected to make it to 81.4 years, 5.1 more years than the little guy and 33.1 years more than their mom.”

Suddenly she recognizes by mood. “Aw,” she mocks me. “Did the air force shoot down your balloon, tweety?”

I gather my splintered self-respect and say, “Most importantly, life expectancy is misleading. What it really says is 50% of the population at any specific age is likely to die before that expected date. But another 50% lives beyond that date, in my case, as much as another four or five years.”

Myrtle says, “That’s sweet. You convinced yourself you have a decade to run.”

“Why, not? I say.”

Morton Marcus is an economist. Reach him at Follow his views and those of John Guy on “Who Gets What?” wherever podcasts are available or at Send comments to