From the TUC

Life expectancy: sometimes there really is good news

03 Jul 2010, by in International, Society & Welfare

New data show that, over the past 40 years, life expectancy and infant mortality have improved rapidly across Western Europe. The new edition of Social Trends, published yesterday, includes a mass of useful data that I’ll be returning to several times over the next few days.

One example is a table of demographic indicators for 1970 and 2005/10 for the UK and several west European countries that we normally compare ourselves with. This includes data on men’s and women’s life expectancy at birth and on infant mortality rates – very good basic indicators about the combined social and economic success of different countries.Let’s start with the most important message: how have things changed over the past 40 years? On these basic indicators we have all progressed – and to a huge degree.

  • In 1970, the infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births) in the UK was 17.4; in 2005/10 it was 4.7.
  • Life expectancy at birth in 1970 was 69.0 for men and 75.2 for women; by 2005/10 this had risen to 77.2 for men and 81.6 for women.

It’s been the same story for all the countries covered by these statistics, and that gives us a chance to see whether the UK’s improvement has been matched in the rest of Western Europe.

For thirty years British politicians have lectured the rest of Europe on economic strategy. Whichever party was in power, the message remained pretty much the same: Britain was leading the way, handing all power to the market was producing an economic miracle, and everyone had to follow our recipe of privatisation and de-regulation.

Unfortunately, these data, which pretty much represent the before and after pictures for the Anglo-Saxon model reforms, reveal that other countries have seen even greater advances than we have.

In 1970, the UK had a lower infant mortality rate than Ireland, German or Italy. By 2005/10, we had the highest of any of the nine countries in these tables:




Infant mortality rate


Infant mortality rate

Netherlands 11.7 France 3.9
Denmark 12.0 Italy 3.9
France 16.3 Germany 4.1
Luxembourg 17.1 Belgium 4.1
Belgium 17.2 Luxembourg 4.2
UK 17.4 Denmark 4.4
Ireland 18.1 Netherlands 4.5
Germany 21.1 Ireland 4.5
Italy 26.7 UK 4.7

In 1970, the UK had the fourth highest life expectancy at birth for both men and women. By 2005/10, this had fallen to the fifth highest for men and eighth highest for women:

Life expectancy at birth, 1970

Life expectancy at birth, 2005/10





Netherlands 71.1 77.0 France 77.6 84.7
Denmark 70.9 76.4 Italy 78.1 84.1
France 68.6 76.2 Belgium 76.7 82.6
UK 69.0 75.2 Germany 77.1 82.4
Italy 69.1 75.1 Ireland 77.5 82.3
Belgium 68.4 74.9 Luxembourg 76.7 82.1
Luxembourg 67.2 74.1 Netherlands 77.8 82.0
Germany 67.9 73.8 United Kingdom 77.2 81.6
Ireland 68.9 73.8 Denmark 76.0 80.6

Sometimes it can be difficult not to go looking for bad news. The fact that these tables show other countries overtaking us is important, and a useful corrective to British politicians’ and newspapers’ assumptions. But really, the overall improvement across Western Europe is the most important fact of all – its an example of news that is important and positive.

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