The Ethics of Aging in an Age of Youth: Rising Life Expectancy in the Early Twentieth-Century United States
American life expectancy took a dramatic jump in the first decades of the twentieth century. Although global life expectancy had been rising for decades, the leap in American life expectancy from around fifty years at birth in 1900 to more than sixty by the 1920s was unprecedented, and contemporaries celebrated it as one of the shining achievements of the modern age. But whose achievement was it? Despite the broad causes of rising life expectancy, Americans overwhelmingly described it as a matter of personal responsibility. This talk focuses on this era’s jump in life expectancy and the corresponding revolution in Americans’ attitudes towards aging and death, especially the growing conviction that individuals had the power to slow their own physical decline by dieting, exercising, and scheduling regular, pre-symptomatic medical appointments, all pillars of the emerging field of preventive medicine.
Helen Veit, PhD
Assistant Professor in Lyman Briggs College and Department of History at Michigan State University
Recorded September 7, 2011