To stay the same, we have to change: the Pope’s retirement an example of increasing life expectancy

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The frail 85 year old Pope Benedict’s decision to retire is a historic act that shows how much population dynamics have changed. And yet it also reflects just how institutions like the church, businesses and universities are actually run very much the same way.  It gives us some inkling on how our society will cope with increasing longevity.

A nifty private website, http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org lists the birth, election and death dates for 88 popes since about 1200.  First I looked at how old popes were when they died. Only five popes were older than Pope Benedict is now when they died; the average age of death was only 71.  Popes serving into their late 80s is not traditional.

More recently popes have been living longer. I created a scatterplot of year of election and age at death. The linear line of best fit shows that popes in the early 1200s could expect to live to 64 and that this grew steadily to 78 in the late 20th century.

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Despite rising life expectancy, for seven hundred years the conclave has been electing men who were about 60: the line of best rises from 60 to 62.  This means that popes are staying in office for an increasingly long time—the trend line rising from 5 to 14 years.

The College of Cardinals is unlikely to change electing men in their 60s. Future popes will almost certainly follow Pope Benedict’s wise example.

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