Futurist Thomas Frey: What’s the value of a human life?
For some of you this is a very disconcerting question because it attempts to put a dollar value on a person, something we value in far different ways.
But that is exactly what governments and businesses find themselves doing on a daily basis. Every time an insurance company calculates their premiums, militaries plan their budget, or juries calculate an award in a product liability case, the value of human life is a central part of their decisions.
In fact, the value of people is a subconscious calculation that we all make on a daily basis. Each of the following statements will indicate a value judgment happening in the back of our mind:
- If I take this training my salary will go up.
- When the mayor died, his estate was worth millions.
- As a single mother raising 7 children, she left a tremendous legacy.
Much like adding an adjustment for inflation, cost of living increase, or adding a premium for brand name anything, we are constantly readjusting our sense of life’s value in our mind.
To some, the difference in value between a homeless person in Indonesia and the President of the United States may be well over $1 trillion. To others, they should be considered equal.
Seven global shifts are currently underway causing the underlying value of human life to move up the exponential growth curve, and along with it, a massive reassessment of corporate decision-making is about to begin.
Here is why this will become such a huge factor over the coming years.
Past Human Life Calculations
To set the stage, here’s a fascinating video clip of a debate about the value of human life between the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman and a young Michael Moore.
In this exchange Moore objects to a decision that was made by Ford Motor Company in the 1970s, based on a typical cost-benefits analysis, to not spend $11 per car on changing the design of the Pinto gas tank in a way that would reduce the likelihood of gas-tank explosions.
Friedman contended that Moore’s complaint merely was over the low value of $200,000 per life lost, not over the principle that the value of human life has a finite upper limit.
Moore seemed to agree with that principle, but he objected to the idea that some executive at Ford could casually decide the fate of Pinto buyers, and that the value of avoiding a horrible death or injury from a burning Pinto was as low as the company had assumed in its formal risk analysis.
Moore assumed that most Pinto owners would have gladly paid the extra $11 to fix the gas-tank problem. But business decisions like this are far more complicated than that with literally thousands of tradeoff decisions being made on the design of every vehicle, where 100% safety can never be guaranteed, and cost savings is always a significant factor.
However, a cost-benefits analysis like this would have looked dramatically different if the value of a human life were to shift from $200,000 to as high as $2 billion sometime in the future.
If you’re wondering how much your life is worth today, you’re not alone.
Here are some of the factors that will drive “value-of-life” calculations like this through the roof in the future.
Seven Global Shifts
As with many facets of the “quantified self” movement, we now have a growing ability to quantify the value of human life with far greater accuracy.
1.) Declining Birthrates
Global populations are growing increasingly fluid, and currently the United Kingdom is home to the most diverse immigrant community in the world, where 1 in 8 people are immigrants.
China and India are basically exporting people. The number of Indian and Chinese-born people living outside of India and China have more than doubled since 1990.
But the most significant change occurring is a global depopulation trend happening in most wealthy nations. Countries need to average 2.1 children per family to maintain an even population base.
According to the World Bank, here is what’s happening in some of the most populated countries in the world:
- Korea (1.19)
- Japan (1.43)
- Thailand (1.56)
- Russia (1.60)
- China (1.69)
- Brazil (1.81)
- Chile (1.85)
- U.K. (1.91)
- U.S. (1.93)
- Sweden (1.98)
- France (2.00)
- India (2.48)
With the exception of India, each of these countries will experience a shrinking populations in the future.
As birth rates decline, each child becomes more precious, and the value of each life rises.
2.) Improving Global Connectedness
We all have our own fan clubs – people who care about us and we care about them. In the past, our primary influence tended to be limited to our Dunbar Number, the 150-250 people we were closest to.
Today, with extensive social media connections, our fan clubs have grown to not only include the strong relationships found inside the Dunbar Number, but also weak and even tangential relationships with people all over the world.
With each new connection, our value as an individual grows along an exponential growth curve that tech gurus like Bob Metcalfe and Dr. David Reed have been attempting to quantify.
Over time, the value of our personal network in tomorrow’s hyper-connected world will become markedly more quantifiable, and by extension, more valuable than the formulas we use to drive our metrics today.
3.) Improving Base of Skills
A skilled laborer is more valuable than an unskilled one, and a multi-skilled individual is even more treasured.
Over time, our ability to accurately assess macro and micro skills will add to the growing body of evidence that the value of human life is indeed snowballing.
Counter to fatalist thinking that automation will cause large numbers of people to be unemployed, automation is simply readjusting our capabilities. By 2030, with the help of automation, the average person will be able to accomplish 50-100 times more in their lifetime than their counterpart today.
Average lifespans around the world have doubled over the past 200 years
4.) Increasing Life Expectancy
Life expectancy is currently increasing by two years every decade, and there are no signs of that slowing down. Average lifespan around the world is now double what it was 200 years ago.
Many times in the past, experts have predicted the increase in life expectancy would slow down and may even reverse, but they have repeatedly been proven wrong.
So will aging increase …forever? Is there a limit to how long we can survive into old age?
With improved diets, lifestyles, and healthcare advances particularly in such areas of gene therapy, stem cells, and radical life extension research, having people reach the age of 250 with an active lifestyle becomes increasingly probable.
Most experts have concluded that there really are no hard ceilings that will prevent us from living indefinitely.
In Great Britain, as example, the Office for National Statistics predicted in 2010 that nearly one-in-five people would live to see their 100th birthday. By 2030, that number could well exceed one-in-two (50%).
As the producing/consuming years of human life grows, so does its overall value.
World per capita GDP is increasing
5.) Increasing Options for Creating Wealth
Interestingly enough, banks have become guardians of the old economy, embracing the networks of laws and regulations that give them protected turf in a bristling tech economy hoping to crack the shell and be set free.
Banks have reinforced their ranks with traditional thinkers wishing to maintain the status quo. Rank and file executives within the banking community are outsiders to the emerging cryptocurrency movement with their thinking focused on “how they will fail.”
On the other side of the equation are cryptocurrency entrepreneurs, some of the best and the brightest in the world, continually asking, “How can we make this succeed?”
Much like white corpuscles attacking the antibodies of corporate structure, they will eventually find a way, and cryptocurrencies will create expansive new ways to generate and amass wealth.
In addition to physical wealth, we have created numerous ways to accrue less tangible forms of wealth such as owning property rights, digital assets, and intellectual property.
So far, we are only scratching the surface of what’s possible. In the future we will uncover exponentially more options.
Extreme poverty has been decreasing significantly
6.) Decreasing Poverty Rates
At the same time that global wealth is increasing, extreme poverty is dropping. We still have a long ways to go to create what many believe to be an equitable distribution of wealth around the world, but it’s moving in the right direction.
Along with decreasing poverty comes increasing purchase power among even the poorest of the poor.
7.) Accelerating Sense of Preciousness in Children
Most families today are fine with only one or two children. Dropping from 6-10 kid families 50 years ago to less than two today, the amount of time and attention dedicated to each child increases.
From an investment standpoint, parents today are willing to pull out all the stops. They view everything from better daycare, to better clothes, to better sport leagues as an investment in their children’s future.
These seven major trend lines, combined with dozens more, will be causing us to continually rethink how we value human life.
As the value of people climbs into the stratosphere, it will have huge implications on everything from product liability cases, to life insurance, to the way we value ourselves.
If our life is worth $2 billion, will we rethink our decision to buy a $200 couch, sleep on a $50 bed, or buy $19 shoes?
Will a better bed cause us to be better rested, extra alert, and more valuable in the future?
People in the future will view themselves as being in a constant state of improvement.
This means that over the coming decades we will become exponentially more fixable – trainable, repairable, improvable, and even re-inventable.
It will never be about who we are today, but who we have the potential to become.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything