Family Demography: is average good enough?

When we look at demographic concepts like “life expectancy” it’s not unusual to see statistics that show women, on average, have a longer life expectancy than men – something that holds true for just about every country in the world.

This observation can be explained in a variety of ways, from the explicitly natural at one extreme – women may be genetically predisposed towards longer life expectancy – to the explicitly cultural at the other: historically, for example, male lives have generally involved higher levels of manual labour, men are less-likely than women to recognise and act upon life-threatening illnesses, they’re more-likely to suffer premature homicide death (such as murder or suicide) and so forth.

Whatever explanation you favour, there’s no getting away from the Tyranny of the Statistics: at last count, for example, the Office for National Statistics note:

Life expectancy at birth in the UK in 2020 was 79.0 years for males and 82.9 years for females“.

So that, as they say, is that.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

Sociologists are accustomed to digging beneath the statistical surface and ideas involving an “average anything” (from life expectancy downwards) require much closer analysis than simply accepting them at face value. Statistics always require interpretation and life expectancy statistics are no exception.

To illustrate this, we can look at another statistic related to the one above. For those currently aged 65, on average:

  • men can expect to live for a further 18.5 years.
  • women can expect to live for another 21 years.
  • Although this seems to confirm what we’ve already seen – women live longer – the interesting thing here is that a percentage of men currently aged 65 will live to around 83.5 years old which, you will note, is slightly higher than the average life expectancy (82.9) for all women. In other words, some men live longer, on average, than some women. So while women generally have greater life expectancy than men this is not necessarily true for all women.

    This, if you think about it, fits with a range of things we know about various forms of inequality (social, gender, ethnic and age, for example) and how each of these, alone and in combination, have “real-world consequences” when it comes to something like life expectancy, amongst a lot of other things.

    Bergeron-Boucher et. al. (2022), for example, studied life expectancy for males and females in 200 countries across the past 200 years and concluded that “although men have a lower life expectancy than the opposite sex, they have a “substantial chance of outliving females”. They estimate, for example. “Between 25% and 50% of men have outlived women” in their study and conclude that “summarising the average length of life can be a “simplistic measure””.

    In other words, while men as a social group have a lower life expectancy than women, historically and cross-culturally a subsection of males actually have a much higher life expectancy than women.

    Talking Transgressively

    To understand why this should be the case we need to think about how the two broad categories “male” and “female” can be broken down into smaller categories that, taken together, feed into the whole. We can, in this respect, take a transgressive approach that argues while “men” as a social category have things in common that are not shared by women – and vice versa – when we look at smaller groups of men they may share distinctive social characteristics that make them different, in turn, from other groups of men. The most obvious differences, as we’ve suggested, are things like social class, ethnicity and age.

    Bergeron-Boucher et. al. note, for example, that “Males who are married or have a university degree tend to outlive females who are unmarried or do not have a high school diploma” and if we unpick these ideas – life expectancy can be related to things like marital status and education – we can illustrate the significance of transgression.

    In the first instance it’s generally the case that married men substantially outlive their unmarried / divorced male counterparts and the significance of this isn’t necessarily marriage itself but rather the lifestyle differences between married and unmarried men: these include a wide range of things, from healthier eating to a less-riskier behaviours. What we’re seeing here, therefore, is that a significant group of men are dying much earlier than the average – which, of course, lowers the average life expectancy for all men.

    In the second, educational differences are generally proxies for social class (that is, differences in educational qualifications can be clearly-related to social class differences: broadly-speaking, the higher your class, the higher your educational qualifications). This means the family history and lifestyle of a highly-educated man is likely to be very different to that of a poorly-educated woman. One, in other words, is likely to lead a much more comfortable and generally easier life than the other. One is much more likely to die from a poverty-related injury or illness than the other…

    Thinking transgressively, therefore, is a relatively simple skill to encourage and develop in students. It’s also one that will give them an edge in their exams because their thinking and approach to situations, problems and solutions will go a bit beyond the everyday, taken-for-granted, assumptions about the social world that the majority of students will reproduce.

    And it’s a mode of thinking that’s not restricted to contexts where averages apply – there are a wide range of contexts and scenarios across the curriculum where you can encourage students to take a transgressive approach to understanding social situations.

    For example, one obvious area is education and the increasingly taken-for-granted assumption that “girls do better than boys” in terms of achievement. As with something like average life expectancy, while this is true overall, this truth hides a much more complex and nuanced situation in which some boys do considerably better than some girls


    Marie-Pier Bergeron-Boucher, Jesús-Adrian Alvarez, Ilya Kashnitsky and Virginia Zarulli (2022) “Probability of males to outlive females: an international comparison from 1751 to 2020

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