How has Increased Life Expectancy Affected the Experience of Childhood…?

Life expectancy in England and Wales has risen dramatically over the last 100 years, increasing from around 55 in 1920 to 80 today for men and from 60 to 83 today for women. …

This means that children who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s would, on average, not have had the experience of being around many people over the age 60, whereas today, on average, children will experience the company of people aged 60-85 as ‘the norm’.

I am talking here of course just about ‘averages’ – experiences will vary from family to family.

For those parents who have children at a younger age, say in their 20s, their children stand much more chance of experiencing a four generation family, something which would have been almost unheard of in the 1920s.

However, three generation families would still have been common 100 years ago because people typically had babies much earlier, meaning children would still have experienced grandparents, but those grandparents would have been younger, in their 50s rather than in their 70s which would be the case in the typical three generation family today.

I think with the increase in family diversity, the increase in life expectancy would mean different experiences with grandparents for children depending on the type of family… for those parents who have children young then children are far more likely to experience grandparents in good health for their entire childhood and maybe only have to deal with their death as older teenagers, whereas experiencing the death of a grandparent during childhood would have been much more common 100 years ago.

HOWEVER, for those parents who have children later, in their 40s, probably dealing with the death of a grandparent would be more likely.

A possible negative affect of the ageing population on the experience of childhood is that parents who have to care for their ageing parents may not have as much time for their children, especially if end of life care is dragged out for several months or years as can be the case with degenerative diseases which are more common in old age.

The experience of childhood may also have been indirectly affected by wider social changes brought about by the ageing population – as society has refocussed its resources towards caring for the old (some might even say pandering to the old) there are relatively fewer resources left for children, so funding in education suffers as does Higher Education with students now having to pay for it themselves.

So as children get older they may start to feel like society is set up for the old and they get very little back in return – other than facing a life of working for 50 years as young adults in order to pay for the ever increasing ratio of old to young (the ‘dependency ratio’).

We kind of saw this with the Covid-19 pandemic – society was focused on protecting the very old while schools just closed – the children suffered for the sake of the old – the experience of childhood here was one of blocked opportunities and increased fear and uncertainty caused, effectively by the government’s choice to put the over 70s first – had the Pandemic happened in the 1920s when there were hardly any over 60s alive anyway society wouldn’t have had to shut down to protect them, because the risk of dying from covid for the under 60s was significantly lower.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This question cam up in the June 2022 families and households paper two exam.

This is a response I free wrote in around 15 minutes to give students some ideas about how they might have answered it. NB it’s not formatted like an answer to a 10 mark question should be, but there is enough information in here to top band I would have thought – there are certainly TWO ways fleshed out!

One thought on “How has Increased Life Expectancy Affected the Experience of Childhood…?”

  1. “had the Pandemic happened in the 1920s when there were hardly any over 60s alive anyway society wouldn’t have had to shut down to protect them, because the risk of dying from covid for the under 60s was significantly lower.”

    couldn’t it be the case that in the 1920s, the 50s and 60s would have been the group that were high risk (for various reasons not excluding the potentially frail health of that age group back then) and that society would have still had to shut down to protect them?

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