Covid and Life Expectancy, Ending Generation Labeling, Tyrannical AI, and more

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Volume 7,
Number 8
July 29, 2021

Hot Topic: Life Expectancy Declines

That mortality rates would increase in a global pandemic seems a reasonable near-term prediction, but COVID-19 has also had an impact on a longer-term demographic measure: life expectancy.

In 2020, life expectancy from birth for the total U.S. population fell by 1.5 years, from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). This is the largest decline the U.S. has seen since World War II.

COVID-19 was the primary factor in the mortality increases that contributed to this decline (73.8%), but it was not the only factor; others included unintentional injuries (a third of which came from drug overdoses), homicide, diabetes, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. Among the offsetting factors were decreases in mortality due to cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, heart disease, and suicide.

Mortality from COVID-19 was responsible for 90% of the decline in life expectancy among U.S. Hispanics, 68% of the decline for the non-Hispanic white population, and 59% of the decline among the non-Hispanic black population, NCHS reports.

“The fact that many Hispanic people work in frontline jobs that exposed them to the virus surely plays a role. But Black workers also tend to hold these jobs,” observes David Leonhardt of the New York Times. “It’s unclear exactly why Covid has hit Hispanic communities somewhat harder than Black communities (and would be a worthy subject for academic research).”

The trend is not exclusive to the United States but has hit the U.S. harder than other high-income countries, according to research published in BMJ (British Medical Journal). The decrease in U.S. life expectancy from 2018 to 2020 was 8.5 times the average decrease among its peer countries.

“Estimates of life expectancy are sometimes misunderstood,” the authors note. “We cannot know the future age specific mortality rates for people born or living today, but we do know the current rates.”

The future, we are reminded, is yet to be written. “Estimates of life expectancy during the covid-19 pandemic, such as those reported here, can help clarify which people or places were most affected, but they do not predict how long a group of people will live,” the BMJ authors write. “Although life expectancy is expected to recover in time to levels before the pandemic, past pandemics have shown that survivors can be left with lifelong consequences, depending on their age and other socioeconomic circumstances.”


“Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2020” by Elizabeth Arias, Betzaida Tejada-Vera, Farida Ahmad, and Kenneth D. Kochanek, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Vital Statistics Rapid Release (July 2021).

David Leonhardt, The Morning, New York Times e-newsletter (July 22, 2021).

“Effect of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 on life expectancy across populations in the USA and other high income countries: simulations of provisional mortality data,” BMJ 2021; 373 doi: (June 24, 2021).

Demographers Call to End Generation Labeling

A group of about 150 social scientists and demographers have sent an open letter asking the Pew Research Center to stop using generational labels (e.g., Silent, Baby Boom, X, Millennial, Z), which they claim cause confusion and are not based in science. Only the post–World War II Baby Boom (1946–1964) can be considered a “discrete demographic event,” the group argues.

A more appropriate alternative to labeling would be to use the decades in which cohorts are born, the group suggests.

“Generation labels, although widely adopted by the public, have no basis in social reality,” writes Philip N. Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, in the Washington Post. Cohen observes that tennis superstar sisters Venus and Serena Williams, born a year apart, are members of two different cohorts (Gen X and millennial, respectively), and that Donald Trump and Michelle Obama are both baby boomers.

“Worse than irrelevant, such baseless categories drive people toward stereotyping and rash character judgment,” Cohen writes. “This is disappointing, because measuring and describing social change is essential, and it can be useful to analyze the historical period in which people were born and raised. People should write books and articles on these topics. But drawing arbitrary lines between birth years and slapping names on them isn’t helping.”

ReadOpinion: Generation labels mean nothing. It’s time to retire them,” Philip N. Cohen, Washington Post (July 7, 2021, updated July 9, 2021).

The Root’s “Future 25” Honors Young Innovators

For the 10th anniversary of its Young Futurists program honoring African Americans ages 16 to 21, media company The Root has rebranded its current class of innovative leaders as The Future 25. Previous honorees have included poet Amanda Gorman, musician Chance Bennett (Chance the Rapper), and athletes Simone Biles and Coco Gauss.

Among the 2021 Future 25 honorees are:

  • Darnella Frazier, 18, “whose video showing the shocking last moments of George Floyd’s life shook up the world and launched a movement for racial justice in this country that hasn’t been seen since the civil rights movement of the ’60s.” For her courage in documenting the incident, Frazier received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board.
  • Genesis Butler, 14, founded green-oriented nonprofit organizations Youth Climate Save and Genesis for Animals.
  • Sofia Ongele, 20, created a free app, ReDawn, that allows sexual assault survivors to request advice and access resources confidentially.
  • Orion Jean, 10, devised and promoted “think kindness” projects such as the Race to 500 Toys drive to deliver playthings to hospitals and the Race to 100K Meals drive to deliver bags of food for people in need, especially those affected by the pandemic.

ReadThe Future 25: A New Name for the Next Generation of Changemakers Who Are Doing Big Things.”

News and Moves in the Field

  • Futures Agency founder Gerd Leonhard has released a 12½-minute video titled The Good Future that strives to define what a good future may be “and how we as humans and citizens, organisations and leaders could go about creating it.” [Learn more]
  • Global Futures and Foresight has launched a new company under its banner, CEO Foresight, “to help mid-sized companies get access to the sort of applied futures thinking only large organisations can get,” says CEO David Smith. [Learn more]
  • James Lee, professional futurist and founder of Strategic Foresight Investments, has been named a winner of the National Association of Active Investment Managers’ 2021 Active Investing Strategy Competition. Lee took first place in the equity-focus strategies category, honored for his StratFI Caffeinated Market Timing model. [Learn more]
  • The U.S. government has granted World Futures Studies Federation Director Victor V. Motti permanent U.S. residency in the category of E21 National Interest Waiver. The recognition reflects Motti’s “exceptional ability in the art and science of futures studies.” Motti and his wife have now moved to Washington, D.C. [Learn more]
  • Futurist speaker Thomas Frey, director of the DaVinci Institute, has joined KOK PLAY as a technical adviser. KOK PLAY, based in South Korea, is a content platform built on blockchain technology. [Learn more]

Foresight Opportunity: Urban Futures Studio

Utrecht University’s Urban Futures Studio in the Netherlands seeks applications for an assistant professor. The tenure-track position requires a PhD in a relevant social science or humanities discipline, such as political science, sociology, or urban studies.

“At the Urban Futures Studio, you will actively contribute to the further development of the Urban Futures Studio into an academically innovative and societally relevant institute. You work to deliver innovative insights, intertwined with collaborating in new transformative policy practices.” Application deadline is September 14. [Learn more]

Recommended Readings: Speculative Climate Fiction

In an essay for Literary Hub, Matt Bell, author of Appleseed (HarperCollins, 2021), offers a reading list of speculative fiction focused on climate warnings. “Within each of these novels is attempt to grapple with our present by imagining other ways we might live, in the future and on other worlds,” Bell writes. Among his recommendations:

  • The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Harper, 2020) “posits a future America in which land use has been upended and reapportioned into areas for specific uses: the City, the Manufacturing Zone, the Woodlots, the Server Farms and the Wilderness State, an area that has until recently been closed to human visitation.”
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014) concerns the expedition to a land abandoned after a mysterious ecological disaster, giving readers the experience of “a nonhuman world moving of its own accord, evolving independently, less hostile to humanity’s influence than simply indifferent.”
  • The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin (Tor Books, 2010) “offers a fierce depiction of many of the interdependent root causes of climate change: settler colonialism, genocide and enslavement of indigenous peoples, and environmental ruin caused by extractive capitalism.”
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (Seven Stories Press, 1993) follows a woman’s journey from a safe gated community to “the ruins of a late climate-change America, where among much else an authoritarian president is helping usher in a new age of indentured servitude.” Bell calls the book “an unflinching extrapolation of our current crisis.”

ReadMatt Bell on Heeding the Dire Climate Warnings of Our Best Literary Prophets,” LitHub (July 14, 2021).

Mack Report: Tyrannical AI

Artificial intelligence is moving up the organizational ladder in decision making, not just reducing middle management’s workload, but taking on more and more responsibility, writes AAI Foresight Managing Principal Tim Mack in his latest article.

Meanwhile, human oversight of AI decisions is falling away, “resulting in the decline of review and appeal options for workers,” Mack writes. And this trend is affecting not just businesses but also critical sectors such as national defense. The U.S. Defense Department’s “autonomous weapon policy has been to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force,” but the guidelines haven’t been updated since 2012, he notes.

In the future, rapid improvements in AI could allow more reliable decision making when hundreds of decisions need to be made simultaneously. Meanwhile, AI development must deal with questions of bias and control—and the possibility of the technologies falling into terrorists’ hands, Mack concludes.

ReadAI as Tyrant” by Timothy C. Mack, Foresight Signals blog (July 20, 2021).

Signal Thoughts

“There is no privacy that cannot be penetrated. No secret can be kept in the civilized world. Society is a masked ball, where every one hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding.… People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life, 1860