Thank the Industrial Revolution for Longer Life

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published October 28 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Growing older comes with its problems, but, as we’ve all heard, it surely beats the alternative. Earlier this month Ari turned 40. (We don’t need to go into details of Linn’s age.) An interesting fact about the age of 40 is that it’s older than the average lifespan of almost all of human history. So if you’re older than 40, or hope to be, thank the industrial revolution, which radically extended human life.

The industrial revolution, fueled by the philosophical Scottish Enlightenment, gained steam in England in the late 1700s. This was right around the time of the founding of the United States, which, as the freest country in the history of the earth, soon adopted the industrial revolution as its own and created unparalleled prosperity.

Modern humans have walked the earth for roughly a quarter of a million years. So you are extremely lucky to have been born during the tiny fraction of human history in which you have a good chance to live to see old age as we now understand it.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, one nation still has a life expectancy less than 40: Angola. Several African nations still have life expectancies less than 50. Why the difference? Much of Africa remains ravaged by tribal warfare, political corruption, and an almost total lack of industrial progress, exacerbating such problems as famine and the AIDS epidemic.

Throughout almost all of human history, most people faced conditions roughly comparable to those of the poorest regions of modern Africa. Violence, starvation, and disease were the normal conditions of life.

The Wikipedia entry on “life expectancy” offers some good leads; for example, it cites a recent text on American history that discusses England in the early 1600s. That book summarizes, “Life expectancy was only about thirty-five years, and two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.” Today children rarely die. Throughout much of human history, many or most children died, and that was considered normal.

In the industrial world, life expectancy has risen into the upper 70s and 80s. The United States comes in only 50th on the CIA’s list with a life expectancy of 78.37. (Monaco tops the list at 89.73.) But the U.S. suffers relatively high rates of auto fatalities and homicides; adjusted for those factors, our country approaches or hits the top of the list.

But how could early industry, with its dirty coal and poor working conditions, so dramatically extend human life? Prior to industry, most people lived in abject poverty, and even the few wealthy of the time had relatively few of the amenities even America’s poor now take for granted. (Andrew Bernstein does a good job of reviewing early industrial advances in Capitalism Unbound.)

Prior to industry, people had to walk wherever they went; the lucky few had horses and carriages (which left stinking, pestilent messes in city streets). Steam-powered boats and trains, then petrol-powered automobiles, gave mobility to the masses. Today we can ride by helicopter to a far-away hospital if we need urgent medical care. We can jet around the world in the time it used to take to traverse a state. A relative recently flew to Europe for discretionary health care.

In the good old days, often you were luckier if you did not have access to a doctor with his leeches and concoctions. If you got an infection, often you would die. Today advanced machinery can scan your bones or peer into your heart. We have access to mass-produced drugs effective at alleviating a wide range of ailments. We have access to heart surgery and advanced cancer treatments.

At America’s founding, roughly 90 percent of all working people farmed. Eking a living from the dirt without the aid of tractors and trucks, irrigation pipes, and modern fertilizers imposed severe hardships. Today less than three percent of the workforce raises all our food—freeing up the labor of others to provide our other wants and needs.

Prior to industry, people made their few items of clothing by hand. With industrial production of cotton clothing, the masses could afford to buy clothes and subject them to the rigors of routine cleaning. Today, we can clothe ourselves modestly for perhaps a couple hour’s worth of labor.

True, industrial progress requires legal stability and relative freedom. Capital formation—the development of the tools and machines that expand our productivity—drives our improving standard of living. People don’t invest in capital when others loot or destroy the products of their effort. The prosperity of capitalism derives from the political protection of people’s rights. To the degree we stray from that standard, we undermine our prosperity and threaten our futures.

If you value your high standard of living and your potential to live into your 70s and beyond, live in gratitude for the industrial revolution—and help protect its future.