The Legacy of Longevity: Persistent inequalities in UK life expectancy 1500-2016

  • 19 Feb 2020

    17:00-18:30, Clay Room, Nuffield College

  • Sociology Seminar   Add to Calendar
Speaker: Charles Rahal

Non-Stipendiary Research Fellow in Sociology, Nuffield College and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and Departmental Research Lecturer

This event is part of the Sociology Seminar Series.

Co-authors: Aaron Reeves, Felix Tropf and Darryl Lundy

That global average life expectancy has more than doubled within the previous two centuries is—by any objective standard—something miraculous to behold, and the academic literature across the fields of economics, demography, public health, and evolutionary biology have all contributed to our understanding of the mechanisms behind the unequal variations in demographic transition. We focus on the effect of socioeconomic status to explore inequalities across health gradients between the tertiary universe of descendants of the British aristocracy and the general population. This is made possible through the creation of an unparalleled dataset containing information on 127,523 aristocratic offspring up to three generations deep, meticulously curated from 7,161 individual sources including 6,756 instances of direct correspondence. Using this semi-structured free-text data on date of birth and death, we develop life-table based methodologies to provide five distinct findings. We first contest the infamous ‘peerage paradox’: that life spans between aristocrats (and their families) were equivalent to the general population until the turn of the 19th century. Secondly, the mortality transition of elites occurred around 100 years earlier than for the general public (with considerable relative improvements of approximately 30% during the industrial revolution(s)). Thirdly, male aristocratic offspring fared less well than the general population during both the Great War and the Second World War, consistent with the existing evidence base. Fourthly, life expectancies equalized at the same time as the introduction of the National Health Service Act 1946. Finally, tentative evidence suggests that this gap has, however, begun to re-emerge since the 1980s.

The Sociology Seminar Series for Hilary Term is convened by Dave Kirk and Nan Dirk de Graaf. For more information about this or any of the seminars in the series, please contact