England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Why is life expectancy declining? Capitalism

By Cormac Kelly

At the age of 24, Friedrich Engels wrote his classic work, The Condition of the Working Class in England. This was a scathing attack on the effects of capitalism on the working class. The book drew on his experiences while living in Manchester during the industrial revolution. He wrote with anger, horrified by exploitation, child labour, environmental damage, poverty waves and poor health. 

The assumption now is that these terrible conditions are something from the past, and that society has moved on, with a better life for everyone. So what do people face now? 

In March 2023, The Economist magazine, an important mouthpiece of the capitalist class published a devastating article on this very question, focusing on deaths and their effects on population growth.

In the years between 2012 and 2022, at least a quarter of a million people died younger than expected. The truer figure could be nearer 700,000. Life expectancy declines when people die earlier. Between 2012 and 2022, 26 months of lost life expectancy equates to roughly 700,000 more deaths in Britain than might have been expected in the early 2010s. This is almost equivalent to the population of Leeds, the third largest city after London and Birmingham. The Economist attempted to account for half a million through Covid and other factors, but they could not find 250,000, equivalent to the size of Stoke.

After 2010, life expectancy stalled in the UK, compared with the long term trend of the past two hundred years and that of other similar countries in Europe. This slowdown has struck all ages, with the poor having been hit the most. In London if you travel six miles from the wealthy part of Kensington to New Cross Gate, life expectancy for men falls by a colossal 18 years, from 92 years of age to 74.

Except for the rich, the life expectancy of all age groups is falling. In 2011, a female child from a working class background on average could expect to live 6.8 years less than one from a rich background. In 2017, that increased to 7.7 years. 

This wasn’t always the case. Between 1980 and 2011, life expectancy was rising steadily at an average rate of three months per year. 

So why has this changed? 

The Tory government, through one of its departments – the misnamed ‘Office for Health Improvement and Disparities’ admits that these deaths are caused by wider social factors and poverty. People live in cold damp homes where children die of heart and respiratory diseases often caused by mould. 8 million houses are unfit to live in. Millions cannot afford high rents. 

The income of British workers is £11,000 worse than in the last 15 years. 2.1 million people used food banks last year. The demand is so great these organisations struggle to cope. Even for those who can afford to eat, low incomes often worsen the choice a person can make about their diet, which can have serious health implications. 

Some 14.4 million people were living in poverty in the UK last year. Those in poverty included 4.2 million children, up from 3.9 million the previous year and over 2 million pensioners according to government figures. There were also 1.5 million more people in poverty in working households than in 2010.

What the Tories will consciously ignore however is their cruel and brutal punishments waged against those in need, in the form of punitive benefit cuts. In total, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) deducted £373m from claimants on HMRC’s behalf in recent years. Young people are hit by closures of community sports, swimming pools and youth centres. Older people can’t heat their homes and are dying prematurely. ‘Deaths of despair’ from substance abuse, suicide and accidents accounts for tens of thousands of fatalities.

Poverty is death

There is a perfect correlation between life expectancy in a local authority and its level of poverty. Cuts in the National Health Service, with people not being diagnosed early and a huge shortage of staff are the cause of more deaths. As a result, Britain has a higher rate of treatable mortality, because deaths could have been avoided with timely and effective healthcare intervention. This is impossible when health services are facing a lack of staff. Combined with this is a chronic lack of public health intervention to prevent illness in the first place.

Over the last 13 years of brutal austerity, there has been a huge fall in wages, with the rising gig economy and attacks on trade unions. The whole purpose of this has always been to leave working class people less able to defend themselves. The result has been working people – those who create society’s huge wealth and profit – without enough to spend on food, heating and living without stress from financial insecurity. 

There is a direct connection between the fall in life expectancy and working-class areas where living standards have rapidly deteriorated. As a result, 10 million years of life have been lost in Britain in the past ten years, compared with what might have been expected in 2011.

Working class areas have been hit hardest by government funding. During the 2010s, spending per person decreased by £165 in the richest councils, but by £315 in the poorest.

Fight for a socialist future 

This new age of disorder is killing people who should be living much longer. The only country in Europe comparable to the UK with population problems is Russia. The capitalist system is oppressive and unjust. It is anti-human. It kills children and drives millions into misery.  

The Economist article states the deaths are ‘unexplained’. But, like Engels all those years ago, as socialist we are able to see through the web of lies. We understand the reasons for this catastrophe. The relentless drive for profits and exploitation of the working class leads to impoverishment and suffering. 

The need for a socialist revolution to end capitalism has never been greater. Socialist Alternative, standing side by side with workers on strike and in struggle, argues that we need a planned economy, where resources are allocated fairly. We stand for a world, free from war, poverty, exploitation and oppression. By uniting, striking, organising and mobilising our power as workers, young people and the oppressed, we can reject the barbarism of the capitalist system which inflicts so much misery on the majority. Join us in the struggle for a socialist future.


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