Statistical Insights: Large inequalities in longevity by gender and education in OECD countries

OECD Statistics Directorate

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While differences in average longevity, or life expectancy, between countries are well-documented, inequalities in longevity within countries are less well-understood and are not fully comparable beyond a handful of European countries. A recent OECD working paper (Murtin et al., 2017) fills this gap by analysing inequalities in longevity by education and gender in 23 OECD countries in 2011.

Measures of inequalities in longevity show that, on average, the gap in life expectancy between high and low-educated people is equal to 8 years for men and 5 years for women at the age of 25 years; and  3.5 years for men and 2.5 years for women at the age of 65. Cardio-vascular diseases, the primary cause of death for the over 65s, are the primary cause of mortality inequality between the high and low-education elderly.

Key findings

Figure 1 shows the longevity gaps between high and low-educated people at the age of 25 and 65. At age 25, life expectancy is 48.9 years for men with low education, 52.6 years for those with medium education and 56.6 years for those with high education. The corresponding figures for women are 55.5 years, 58.3 years and 60.1 years respectively.

Longevity gaps differ markedly across countries. High-educated 25 year-old men for example can expect to live more than 11 years longer than their low-educated counterparts in Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, while the gap is  less than  5 years in Portugal, Turkey, Italy, New Zealand and Mexico. In the case of women, inequalities in life expectancy are relatively small in Austria, Israel, Portugal and Italy, but amount to over 6 years in Latvia, Poland, Belgium and Chile.

Large inequalities in longevity by education persist even at older ages. At 65 years, life expectancy for men, on average in the OECD, is 15.8 years for those with low education, 17.1 for those with medium education and 19.2 years for those with high education. The corresponding figures for women are 19.6, 20.8 and 21.9 years. In relative terms, i.e. expressed as a share of the remaining lifespan, gaps in longevity are larger at 65 than at 25.

While differences in average life span (i.e. longevity or life expectancy) between groups of education and gender are large, this masks wider differences in life span within groups when other factors, such as genetics and exposure to risk factors are taken into account. Indeed, combined, education and gender, only account for around 10% of the total variation in lifespan.

Breaking down mortality rates (measured as the probability of death in a given year) of people aged between 65 and 89 years by causes of death (circulatory causes such as heart failure, neoplasms or cancer, external causes such as accidents, and other causes) reveals that circulatory problems are the leading cause of death for both gender and education groups (Figure 2). Indeed they account for about 40% of total mortality, with neoplasms and other causes of death accounting for between 25% and 30%. Circulatory problems are slightly more prevalent among the low-educated, for both men and women.

Focusing on low-educated older men, circulatory problems are the most frequent cause of death in high-mortality countries such as Latvia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, where they account for around half of all deaths, as compared to around one third of deaths in Canada (28%), the United Kingdom (30%), Norway (37%) and Turkey (31%). Conversely, other causes of death are relatively more prevalent in low-mortality countries.

Circulatory problems are also the main factor explaining the mortality gap between education groups at older age. For elderly people, circulatory diseases contribute to 41% of the difference in mortality rates between low and high-educated men and 49% between low and high educated women.

Addressing the risk factors underlying circulatory diseases, in particular smoking, seems as an efficient way of reducing both average mortality rates and inequalities in longevity across education groups. According to Mackenbach (2016), smoking accounts for up to half of the observed inequalities in mortality rates in some European countries; also, while its contribution to inequalities in longevity has decreased in most countries for men, it has increased among women.

 The measure explained

Longevity is statistically defined as the average number of years remaining at a given age. It is calculated as the mean length of life of a hypothetical cohort assumed to be exposed since starting age until death of all their members to the mortality rates observed at a given year. Mortality rate is a measure of the number of deaths in a particular population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit of time.

Estimates of life expectancy by education are drawn from data compiled in different ways in different countries. Two main approaches (study design) can be distinguished:

  1. A “cross-sectional’ (unlinked) design implies that information on the socio-economic characteristic of the deceased is drawn directly from death certificates, as reported by relatives or public officials, while population numbers for the same population categories (the denominator of mortality rates) are drawn from the most recent population censuses. An obvious drawback of this “unlinked” design, which is still used by most countries reviewed in the accompanying OECD working paper, is that it can only be implemented when death certificates include information on the occupation and education of the deceased. In addition, even when this information is included in death certificates, it may be affected by (large) recording errors;
  2. A “linked design” implies that socio-economic information on the deceased is retrieved by individual data linkage to the most recent population census or administrative register records. While both types of data are used in this study the “linked approach” is generally associated with higher quality data. Beyond these differences, a number of data treatments are implemented to correct for statistical biases and anomalies that may arise when calculating mortality rates based on a small number of deceased with specific age, gender and education characteristics.

The measure of inequalities in longevity described above have two specific features that may affect cross-country comparisons: first, life expectancy is disproportionately affected by mortality rates at very young ages compared to mortality rates at older ages; second, measures of life expectancy by education are also affected by the fact that distributions of education vary across countries and time. Alternative measures of inequalities in longevity have been examined, and they all show very large correlations across countries. In other terms, accounting for differences in the size of the various educational groups or using average mortality rates rather than life expectancy measures, does not change the assessment of countries’ rankings significantly. There are also significant cross-country differences between these measures of inequality in longevity and more traditional measures of inequality in, for example, income: longevity inequality are lowest in Italy, where income inequality is relatively high, and highest in many Eastern European countries, where income inequality is relatively low.

Where to find the underlying data

The underlying data can be found online at the following address:

Useful links

Mackenbach, J.P. (2016), Health Inequalities in Europe, Erasmus University Publishing, Rotterdam

Murtin, F., Mackenbach, J.P., Jasilionis, D. and M. Mira d’Ercole  (2017), “Inequalities in Longevity by Education in OECD Countries: Insights from New OECD Estimates”, OECD Statistics Working Papers, 2017/2, OECD Publishing, Paris .

Gender-balance in Parliaments: An indispensable condition for more democratic and sustainable societies

Kate Brooks and Eleonore Komai, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

The 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life is unique and innovative as it covers executives but also parliaments and judiciaries with clear, timely and actionable guidelines. It represents an important commitment of member and partner countries that wish to join the OECD community towards the realisation of a whole-of-government approach for more gender-sensitive and inclusive public institutions. Notably, it calls on its Adherents to “consider measures to achieve gender balanced representation in decision making positions in public life by encouraging greater participation of women in government at all levels, as well as in parliaments, judiciaries and other public institutions”.

Women’s representation in parliaments remains a global issue. On average in 2016, women constituted 23% of parliamentarians over both upper and lower houses combined, with the Pacific, Arab States and Asia having the lowest representation (16.4%, 18.2%, and 19.2% respectively)[1]. However, it must be noted that many countries in these regions have made substantial progress over the past ten years.

Numbers do matter. Parliaments are powerful political institutions where most policies are voted on. They shape important aspects of people’s social, political and economic present and future lives. Parliaments should thus reflect the perspectives and interests of society in all its diversity. A truly inclusive society would have a truly inclusive legislature.

Amongst OECD countries, women’s representation in lower houses and unicameral legislatures is heterogeneous both in terms of percentage and progress. While Iceland reached 47.6% of female parliamentarians in 2016 (39.7% in 2013), some countries such as Chile lag behind with women’s parliamentarians accounting for 15.8% in 2016. In addition, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, New-Zealand, Italy, Austria, Luxembourg, France and Greece have experienced a drop in women’s representation from 2013 to 2016.

For young women, adolescents and little girls to aspire to leadership roles in public life, they need to see women leaders. Specific measures, such as quotas, have been implemented to tackle the issue of gender balance in parliaments. Quotas aim to ensure that women represent at least a critical minority. They can take the form of reserved seats, legal candidate quotas or political party quotas and can be legislated or voluntary[2]. 10 of the 35 OECD countries reported having implemented legislated quotas in 2016. Effectiveness largely depends on context.

Share of female parliamentarians in OECD countries, 2013 and 2016
Percentage of women holding seats in lower houses and unicameral legislatures

Data is for 1st December 2016 and 1st December 2013. Bars in light blue represent countries with legislated quotas in 2016
Source: Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) PARLINE database, Quota Project

It is important to point out that gender balance in parliaments, as an important step towards gender equality, is not sufficient in itself. Gender balance does not ensure equal participation or equal access to leadership and decision-making roles among others.

Barriers to women’s equal representation and access to political life – be they structural, functional or cultural – find commonalities among countries but are also specific to local settings. Strategies and efforts to tackle gender inequality within parliaments can start with global strategies and international commitments, but need to be supported by concrete measures and continuously adapted to specific realities and experiences. The OECD continues to work to support countries in addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality in public life. A toolkit to guide both members and non-members is currently in development.

Useful links

International Women’s Day at the OECD:

Friday, 14-17h, Seminar on gender equality before the law

OECD work on Gender equality

Women in government

OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris.



Gender equality in West Africa: Actions speak louder than words

Julia Wanjiru, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat

Respect of the fundamental rights of women and girls remains a serious, sometimes life-threatening, concern in many developing countries. Several decades of gender debates, special events and development goals dedicated to the empowerment of women, add up to only modest improvements on the ground.

Let’s look at a few examples from West Africa.

Child marriage. Seven West African countries rank among the top 20 countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. In Niger, three out of four girls marry before their 18th birthdays, contributing to the fact that Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world (7 children per woman in child-bearing age). Nigeria is among the top 20 countries with the highest absolute numbers of child marriages, with 1.2 million married girls. By depriving its girls of the chance to develop their potential, the region is collectively losing a huge amount of human capital.

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C remains a widespread practice in West Africa, even though its prevalence varies considerably from one country to the next—ranging from 2% in Niger to 97% in Guinea. Many initiatives are working against this practice and some countries have passed laws to formally forbid female circumcision (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, etc.). However, law enforcement has trouble cracking down on these deeply rooted traditions and mentalities. According to WHO estimates, more than 3 million additional girls worldwide are cut each year—mostly by elderly women.

Educational gaps. Huge strides have been made in getting more girls into schools, but when it comes to assessing educational outcomes, the results are much less impressive. The net school attendance rate for girls from 2011-2014 was about 50% for the poorest performing countries like Chad, Mali and Niger. These countries also have the lowest literacy rates for girls (15% in Niger and 34% in Mali—far below sub-Saharan Africa’s 2015 average of 69%). The gender gap is progressively closing, but no country in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to achieve gender parity in primary and secondary education.[1] The most persistent barriers to girls’ education are: early marriage and early motherhood, traditional seclusion practices, the favouring of boys when it comes to family investment in education and the gendered division of household labour.

Ensuring equal opportunities for women and men, girls and boys in Africa will take time, massive educational efforts and profound changes to existing ways of thinking. Those changes might be supported by more exposure to external influences; the diaspora and media sources like TV series and movies can help accelerate these changes.

The legal frameworks, policies and strategies are hard to find, but they do exist. Since the mid-2000s, almost every West African country has created a national gender policy or strategy. Regional organisations like ECOWAS, UEMOA, CILSS and the African Union have all adopted gender policies and they are increasingly mainstreaming gender issues in different policy sectors. But, in practice, gender is still considered mostly as an afterthought and gender policies are often not implemented effectively. Ministries in charge of gender issues have usually very large portfolios— ranging from youth, sports, CSO, employment and drug control. They are often understaffed, under-funded and not taken seriously. Budgets allocated to gender-specific issues within sectoral policies remain tiny; disaggregated gender data is missing. To make some decisive progress, strong political will must come from the very top level, including from key ministries such as economic affairs, budget and strategic planning.

The weak implementation of gender-focused policies is, however, not just a funding problem. There are many other obstacles and risk factors: strong individual and institutional resistance to gender initiatives, deep-rooted cultural issues and traditions, general under-representation of women in the public sphere, illiteracy, etc.

Much of the gender debate seems to take place in a bubble, with gender experts mostly preaching to the choir. We cannot make headway on gender equality by having discussions that are mostly made up of women and gender experts. Moreover, women’s affairs are often associated with charities and are promoted for example, by African first ladies and many other famous female ambassadors—sometimes very successfully but a large number of initiatives are also instrumentalised for political ends. How many of their male counterparts are active in promoting gender equality? As long as the gender debate remains solely a women’s issue, it won’t move far.

It should not be forgotten, that gender is not just a matter of achieving equal opportunities for women and men. Gender equality is an economic development issue. Here again, the message is not new, but it still has not been sufficiently brought to the attention of all policy-makers. How can a country voluntarily deprive itself of the human potential of half of its population? The economic cost is enormous.

To reduce gender inequality more effectively and achieve sustainable development, we need to get more men on board. We also need to invest more in the education of girls and boys. Everywhere in the world, education has been a key driver of gender equality. An educated girl is better equipped to defend her interests and choose the life she wants. Education can also raise boys’ awareness of gender issues and make them less prone to seeing gender equity as a loss of privileges for themselves. Men could become true allies in building a society based on equal rights and opportunities.

But education alone is not enough. How many educated women and men still face pressure from their communities to conform? Girls’ education, beyond a certain level, is still seen by many as a “waste of time.” A 30-year old unmarried woman is not a “respected woman,” no matter how successful she might be in her professional life; she is seen as having failed to fulfil her “true mission” to be a wife and mother.

In order to change these deeply rooted prejudices, more effort must be made to target opinion leaders and traditional chiefs who set the agendas within their communities. The chiefs could play a much more active role in helping their communities move away from gender stereotypes, or at least, to not deepen them.  For example, Muhammadu Sanusi II, the Emir of Kano in northern Nigeria (population around 15 million), just announced a proposal to outlaw forced marriage, make domestic violence illegal, and impose minimum financial conditions upon men who want to marry a second wife. The proposed law does not exactly promote gender equality, but Kano state is taking a concrete step forward in a way that will make a difference in the lives of millions of women and children.

This year, International Women’s Day will again be marked by declarations of good intentions and statements—including mine. What should count, though, is not the number of commitments we make, but the true progress we achieve on the ground. At the end of the day, African girls and women will need to tell their own stories, fight for their own rights and work to achieve equal representation. If men were ready to help them, things would move much faster.

Useful links

Maps & Facts:

Women in parliament: Senegal ranks 7th worldwide but West African women remain under-represented

Au Sahel, au-delà de la Journée des droits des femmes, des fillettes interdites d’enfance  [Girls robbed of their childhood in the Sahel] Laurent Bossard, Director, SWAC Secretariat in Le Monde

International Women’s Day at the OECD:

Friday, 14-17h, Seminar on gender equality before the law

OECD work on gender

[1] UNESCO (2015): Gender and EFA 2000-2015: achievements and challenges,

Irrational me… Behavioural Economics hits its stride

Bill Below, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

As humans we sometimes invest poorly, accept software updates without reading the fine print, choose the wrong business partners, commit heroic acts, are optimistic when we should be cautious and pessimistic when we should be sanguine. We occasionally buy things we don’t really need, eat fatty foods and some of us even still smoke. We fail to systematically pursue our direct self-interest (erring at times on the side of altruistic cooperation), don’t save enough for old age, confuse the nominal and real value of money, believe an overheated economy will never crash and when it does, lose confidence for too long that things will ever be right again. It’s easy to see why neoclassical economists have preferred a pared down paradigm of human motivation largely free of human psychology. Human rationality is bounded, as some politely put it. The good news may be that, although people do many things they regret, they often do so in predictable ways.

Enter behavioural economics. The incorporation of behavioural, social and cognitive dimensions into economic thinking has grown in recent times as economists strive to improve their models, forecasts and policies. Much of the impetus for this trend can traced back to the ground-breaking (and Nobel Prize-winning) work of cognitive decision-making theorists such as Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the second half of the last century. That cognitive psychologists should receive the Nobel Prize in Economics is perhaps emblematic of this relatively new phase in economic thinking. In the intervening years, demonstrating the ways in which we humans are not always good utility maximizers has proven to be a rich vein of exploration.

Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from around the world”, recently published by the OECD, demonstrates the extent to which the floodgates have opened, allowing cognitive and behavioural psychology as well as other social sciences to take their place at the policy table. Behaviourally informed policy, or Behavioural Insights (BI), makes use of insights from these disciplines while applying inductive scientific methodology to policy making and implementation. In other words, experimentation. In a context in which governments are seeking more efficient outcomes without resorting to additional rules and sanctions, these developments seem timely.

For a long time, policy makers have concentrated on what they want citizens to do, less on how citizens actually behave. The place for insights into human behaviour has been slim and often considered to be outside the purview of policy makers. After all, the blunt instruments of fines and enforcement were always there to ensure compliance to rules and policies. They still are, but today, an increasing number of policy makers are willing to consider a more nuanced approach; one in which likely human behaviours, and insights based on experimental data, inform the policy making process. It’s not so revolutionary. In product markets, scenarios of human behaviour play an essential role in design. When designers get it right, the result is a better fit between user and product, along with a slew of additional benefits such as ease of use, increased productivity, greater satisfaction and, in marketing terms, heightened preference. Just like products, policies are intended to elicit a human response. To ignore behavioural insights is to pass by some important opportunities to tap into existing human motivations. As any black belt will tell you, brute strength will only get you so far. The experienced judoka uses her opponent’s own energy, channelling it to achieve the desired result more efficiently. Policies that strive to capture citizen self-motivation tend to enjoy similar efficiency.

Take the example of tax compliance. Efforts to increase compliance typically consist of threats and interest penalties in addition to audits and enforcement. But the behavioural approach might begin with an open-ended question such as ‘Can the way in which we communicate with non-payers influence their willingness to comply?’ This in turn could be tested by drafting a number of different messages reflecting relevant behavioural insights, sending them out to the targeted population and measuring the results. Indeed, the government of Ontario, Canada, wanted to reduce the number of employers filing their tax returns late. Using findings from behavioural science, the government modified the standard collection letter to include concrete details of where, how, and when to file one’s overdue annual return. The outcome of the intervention was a 4.2 and 6.1 percentage point increase in tax filing relative to the unmodified letter in 2014 and 2015, respectively. In other words, a behaviourally informed “light touch” (in this case, a single paragraph added to an existing letter) outperformed costlier and more heavy-handed approaches in a significant number of cases.

The OECD’s Behavioural Insights group, partnering with the London School of Economics, the European Nudging Network (TEN) and Harvard University spin-off and non-profit ideas42, has collected 129 cases from 14 countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. Case studies are drawn from a number of sectors, including financial products, energy, environment, health and safety, tax, public service delivery and more. The cases offer a glimpse into a wide variety of policy issues and suggest the versatility and power of the behavioural approach. It’s a fascinating snapshot of BI as it enters the mainstream and provides a richly documented “idea book” that will surely spark new thinking.

Yet, according to the authors, if behavioural insights are to realise their full potential, standards must be set in order to gain the trust of public bodies and offset the perception of potential ethical issues. Experimentation and the use of academic findings are fundamental to behavioural practitioners in public policy. Scientific credibility, in turn, depends on reliable data and statistically significant samples that can stand up to public scrutiny and scale up as needed. Despite these challenges—and as Behavioural Insights and Public Policy shows—the behavioural revolution that began more than forty years ago is today making a measurable difference in policy effectiveness around the world.  It suggests that a behaviourally-oriented policy approach might be one of the most rational choices a government can make.

Useful links

Behavioural Insights and Public Policy: Lessons from Around the World

OECD work on Behavioural Insights

OECD work on Regulatory Policy

Economics’ massive magnet Professor K. Vela Velupillai discusses the theories behind behavioural economics on OECD Insights

Single bidding in Europe is back, and you should be worried

In the run-up to the OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum on 30-31 March 2017, Jeroen Michels and Patrycja Breskvar of the OECD Directorate for Public Governance look at the danger of distorted competition in Europe today.

Let’s imagine for a moment, you are taking part in an online auction for a piece of designer furniture and you are the only bidder – it’s your lucky day, right? Now imagine you wanted to take part in the bidding, but somehow the auction was set up to undermine your participation. You have little chance now of bringing that Philippe Starck chair home. Frustrated? Of course!
Now consider this: single bidding and rigged procurement processes appear to be back in Europe.

The threat of distorted competition in Europe is emerging – according to Tenders Electronic Daily (TED), 30% of calls for tender across Europe received only one bid in 2015, double the amount from a decade ago. Considering that European governments’ procurement expenses accounted for around €1.9trl in 2015, the equivalent of one fifth of GDP, the risk of bid-rigging and collusion poses real economic implications. Incidents of hampered competition, such as the case of Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, who bent the assessment of tender requirements in order to back up the Cavendish Fluor Partnership in a £7bn tender, raise serious concerns, as do the problematic practices observed in Slovenia over the 2015 Christmas period, whereby single-bids were the case in 50% of procurement contracts announced. As a recent Economist article accurately points out, the newest members to the EU appear to struggle the most with reduced competition in procurement. Croatia is the dubious winner here, with 43% of government contracts unchallenged in 2015, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania are just some of the close runners-up.

Just as you felt the blow of hampered competition in your attempt to buy a coveted Philippe Starck chair, society as a whole pays the ultimate price for collusive activity and rigged bids.  Not only does unfair competition restrict the access of buyers and suppliers which is a major hindrance on the path to a prosperous economy, it also results in poorer quality of goods and services obtained by the public sector. This undermines public trust in government operations and has negative effects on the whole policy-making process.

When addressing the issue of bid-rigging, resources such as the Recommendation on Fighting Bid Rigging in Public Procurement, the OECD Competition Assessment Toolkit, the OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity and the OECD Public Procurement Toolbox are resources to explore. Supporting the implementation of the OECD Recommendation on Public Procurement, the OECD Public Procurement Toolbox is an online knowledge sharing platform aimed at policy makers and public procurement practitioners and organises content by principles, country cases and assessment. A constantly evolving toolbox, its content can be modified according to the needs of the public procurement community.

Passionate about this issue? Then get out of your designer chair and come join the debate at the 2017 OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum on 30-31 March 2017 in Paris. This global multi-stakeholder event brings together public and private sectors, civil society and academia in order to present the latest insights on anti-corruption & integrity.

Useful links

  • Check out the Forum agenda for sessions that interest you.

The public sentiment runs deep. Over half of the citizens in developed countries distrust their government and a yawning trust gap is emerging between the elite and mass populations. Among the key factors cited by citizens to explain the prevailing distrust are “wrong incentives driving policies” and “corruption/fraud”. Economic growth is at stake and the toll on society is already significant.

Rolf Alter, Director of the OECD Public Governance and Territorial Development Directorate @raltergov on OECD Insights Read the full article

While one corruption scandal follows another, committed integrity defenders are relying more and more on behavioral sciences to design compliance systems and anti-corruption policy measures – Are we hardwired for corruption or for integrity? Read the full article