Big Money Actuarial Work as a Measure of Public Understanding of Longevity Science

People who make decisions involving very large amounts of money are not necessarily right any more often than the rest of us, but they do put in a great deal more groundwork and research in the course of making these decisions. In the gargantuan life insurance and pensions marketplace, where the long-term success of multinational conglomerates rests on good predictions of life expectancy, that amounts to a lot of time spent thinking about the near future of human longevity and medical technology.

The results of that work are not terribly secret. Industry mouthpieces update and publish the present consensus expectation for human life expectancy, as well as the consensus on the chances of that expectation being wrong, and the consensus on how large the errors might be. Then there are other analysts who watch the actions of various insurance and pensions giants in order to decide how that relates to what will happen to human life spans in the decades ahead - and on top of that, there are a whole range of big financial institutions that offer forms of insurance and risk management for the life insurance and pensions industry, trying to make money by better guessing the risk of error than other specialists.

I look on all this activity in two ways: firstly, it is a useful pathway for wider education on longevity science. The actuaries are aware of research and its implications long before the general public, and they are also hooked into business machinery that widely publishes their analysis and viewpoints. As a result, many people will be convinced about the prospects for engineered human longevity by the materials produced by the financial industry rather than those produced by patient advocates, scientists, and the medical industry.

Secondly, the work and publications of actuaries are a barometer for how compelling and widespread the arguments have become for significantly extending healthy human life through biotechnology. In this, I tend to pay attention to the pace at which their estimates are changing rather than the estimates themselves - it is my opinion that great financial upheaval lies ahead as sudden, large, and uncertain gains in life expectancy for older people are unlocked by advances in biotechnology. Present estimates are rather tied to the slow model of incidental life extension rather than the far more uncertain timeframe for the arrival of ways to achieve deliberate slowing and reversal of aging.

You might have a look at this recent article as an example of the sort of thing that catches my eye; the bigger picture of comparatively rapid changes in actuarial assessments is a good thing. It means that more people are paying attention to what is going on in the laboratory, and thinking clearly about what that means for the future.

The [UK's] biggest firms have increased their pensioner longevity assumptions for the fifth year running in a move which has added about 1% to scheme liabilities, Mercer says. Research from the consultant found FTSE100 companies had increased their UK longevity assumptions by about three months for current pensioners and by about five months for future retirees compared to the previous report in December 2009. It said, on average, male scheme members aged 65 are projected to live until 87.2, while those currently aged 45 who survive until 65 are expected to live until 89.2. Mercer said this represented an increase of about two years in life expectancy from its 2006 report - which means companies believe life expectancy has improved faster than previously expected, which has added to pension bills.

My suspicion is that anyone taking a large financial position that in effect depends on today's average 45-year-old dying on time in 2055 stands a good chance of losing their shirt. The guesstimate technologies of that decade veer into places that are hard to predict; it should be past the first business cycles of molecular manufacturing, for example, and at the same time benefit from fully mature technologies based on regenerative medicine, organ regrowth, and other forms of control over the body's cells and their state.


Nice analysis Reason and good catch of the longevity revisions by Big Finance. It does make one wonder how actuaries will react when, in a decade or two, we cross the line by adding (on average) 12 months to life expectancy every year.

Posted by: Mark at October 3rd, 2011 6:59 PM

How does that compare to the same type of revisions regarding car accidents, are they taking into account automated accident avoidance and the possibility of robocars at the same rate, too?

Posted by: Hervé Musseau at October 4th, 2011 1:39 AM

@Hervé Musseau: if you look at the WHO mortality data, accidents aren't all that important as a cause in the older age ranges. All accidents are down near 2-3% of deaths for the 75+ range, and those are largely fall-related. Traffic accidents are a tiny proportion of the total.

Nonetheless, the actuarial work quoted above is all-cause mortality. Someone, somewhere is thinking about robocars and traffic accident trends in the elderly - though of course the standard questions as to whether they are right or not arise. By 2055, enough progress on strong AI might lead to a great drop in accident rates due to watchdog software ... or not, depending on cost and adoption.

Posted by: Reason at October 4th, 2011 5:48 AM

This is very interesting because I have long predicted that the first significant indication that we are making real progress in life extension would arise when rather than adding the 24-30 months per decade as we have for the last 50 years plus we would see an acceleration in the rate at which life expectancy was increasing year on year. I predicted in 2005 that by 2015 we would see an increase of 5-6 months per annum as opposed to the current 2.5 months so if this trend continues I am confident we might have turned the corner.

Posted by: John Andersen at October 10th, 2011 12:23 PM
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