A way to measure one’s life

In the post Seeing What’s Next, I showed how the rate of change of adoption of technology varies with time and asked what might be experienced by present and future generations.

It turns out that knowing how what innovations become universal and the speed at which these technologies are replaced can give us an idea of what individuals might experience in their lifetimes.

Here’s how to think about it:

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 11-19-8.04.42 PM

You can use the model above to visualize a lifespan, given a year of birth. Follow the line for your year of birth and measure an expected life (the life expectancy in green is a guide). You can skip over childhood years and decide when you might have reached an age when you start buying and using certain products as well as when you think you might stop.

Trace a rectangle over the grey areas in the bottom graph spanning the years you will start to consume and when you might expect to stop.

The area within the rectangle will include known products and their expected lifespans (marked in alternating shades of grey with a figure for the longevity of service life.) The total number of segments represents your expected consumption.

I marked the areas for a person born in 1913 and one born in 1968[1] What the analysis shows is that I would be expected to own:

  • Three stoves (I’ve owned one so far.)
  • One regular landline phone service. Mine was discontinued in the late 90s.
  • One electricity subscription. (It seems banal to give electricity a product lifespan but will make more sense if the electric grid is re-achitected.)
  • Five cars (for my household). I’ve owned more than five but mostly due to vanity.
  • 8 Radios/Stereos. I owned about 5 “sound systems” so far
  • 4 Washers. My household has owned 3 so far.
  • 4 Refrigerators. I’ve owned three so far.
  • 4 Dryers. Three so far.
  • 7 Air conditioning systems. I’ve only owned about 3 but I lived in cooler climates.
  • 5 dishwashers. I’ve owned 3 so far.
  • 4 CRT Color TVs and three HDTV. I’ve had 4 CRT TVs and one HDTV so far.
  • 4 VCRs. I’ve owned 4.
  • 11 PCs. I lost track but I think more than that so far.
  • 5 Game consoles. I’ve owned none. To be fair, consoles are not an universal technology as they have not reached saturation.
  • 7 voice-oriented cell phones. I’ve had a few more but it’s close
  • Three internet service contracts. (This assumes dial-up as first.)
  • 15 Smartphones. 6 so far (excluding company purchases).
  • 10 Tablets. 4 so far.

A couple of caveats:

  1. My life is not yet over, so there is still time to fulfill my consumption quota.
  2. There will be additional things to count within my life span.
  3. There are many technologies not counted but few of those I can imagine are universal, or saturated. This means that there is little certainty this model can be used reliably.
  4. Some people are early adopters and some are late adopters. Depending on which, it might add or subtract certain product cycles but as adoption rates increase and product lifespans decrease.

I did the same tally for my grandmother and it matches prettily closely her consumption with the caveats that she did not reside in the US and that she lived almost twice the expected lifespan.

The obvious next step is to multiply the model by population forecasts.



  1. Corresponding to my grandmother and myself though we were not born in the US. []
  • Austin

    I was born in 1985 so I’m looking at 2005 to 2055.

    Three Stoves: None owned but the two rental units I’ve lived in came with stoves.

    One landline phone: I’ve owned zero. I will probably never own have a landline phone.

    One Electricity: Yes.

    Four Cars: Only one so far.

    Seven Radios: Hmm, zero? I do have a sound system so if that counts then one.

    Four Washers: Never owned one. But there’s one in the apartment I’m renting.

    Four Fridges: None. But, such as with stoves, I’ve rented two.

    One CRT and Five HDTVs: Only one HDTV

    Four Dryers: Never owned one. But there’s one in the apartment I’m renting.

    Five ACs: Again, never owned but came with each of the two apartments I’ve lived in.

    Four Dishwashers: None. One comes with my current rental apartment.

    Six Microwaves: Only one.

    One VCR: Zero.

    Four PCs: I think five or six.

    Two Game Consoles: Owned 4, still use 3 of them.

    One Cell Phone: Yup, just one. The Moto RAZR was my first phone.

    Three Internet contracts: I’ve had 2, not counting mobile.

    Nineteen Smartphones: Six or seven.

    Fourteen Tablets: Only two so far.

    Man, I need to up my consumption game!

    • Wang Qiqi

      Hello, could you please share the data source of penetration ratios?

  • dicklacara


    1) I think your actuarials are wrong:

    I was born in 1939, am currently 74 years old and have a life expectancy to age 85 – 86, or 11 – 12 years

    2) I think some of your technology dates are wrong;

    We rented a furnished apartment in 1964 that had a color TV (you show 1968)

    We bought an Amana RadarRance Microwave in 1974 (you show 1979)

    I bought an Apple ][ personal computer in 1978 and opened a store that December. The IBM/PC was introduced in 1981, the Mac in 1984 (you show 1985)

    I read somewhere, that in 1940 (except for the wars) most people in the US had never traveled more than 30 miles from where they were born.

    Also, when I was born, I had a life-expectance of 64-66.

    My point is that, like the actuarials, you need to take into consideration the conditions today.

    Finally, a suggestion for the site:

    Graphs such as these are difficult to read. It would be useful to have the user enter his date-of-birth, then using JavaScript plot the user’s expected lifespan as an highlight overlay on both of the tables.

    • alive

      Why should only people alive today be the only ones considered?

      Also, this is 10%-90% penetration, not the time from first product release.

      • Walt French

        I guess that’s the intertubes for ya… it’s a lot easier to give “you should” advice than to reflect for a bit and then re-read the post.Either that, or Horace’s predilection for innovative graphs naturally has a side effect of miscomprehension that those of us raised on a diet of sloppy USA Today-quality infographics, just aren’t ready for.

    • disqus_7zWsrkTLC0

      Horace’s numbers are probably life expectancy at birth for people born in each year. Life expectancy at some other age for people born in that year should be longer, because that average is not pulled down by the people who died before that age.

    • See graph titles and scales.

  • Bernardo

    You should crowdsource this ! Remember what you did with Big Mac Index?

    • egd3hr

      I agree!

    • dicklacara

      Yes, done properly it could provide some amazing and useful demographics!


  • egd3hr

    Interesting as usual. Would be interesting to somehow correlate the frequency of consumption of products which could be thought of as “aspirational” (cars, smartphones, PC’s, tablets) with those that are more truly utilitarian in nature.

  • KirkBurgess


  • Sander van der Wal

    There’s quite some technology that is only useful in some parts of the world. Air Conditioning is one of them, in colder climates people will have Central Heating.

    There’s also lots of technology that is more useful if you live inside a city, or outside it. Like cars and mopeds.

  • Mark Rose

    Cool graph. Notice how the graphs line have “steepened” (become more vertical) over time. Tablet is virtually straight-up (in relative terms).

    • Pete Austin

      The recent products are generally “smaller”. Some of the lines on the left are for product categories, such as “car” or “refrigerator”, that cover many generations of products: each individual car generation might have a steep line, but the chart only shows the sum for the whole category and that’s less steep. In contrast some of the products on the right are really just different form factors of personal computer and could be shown as a single line.

      • These are not measurements of units sold. They are measurements of penetration/(1-penetration) on a log scale. They show how quickly a technology reaches a degree of penetration of the available population. “Each individual car generation” will not achieve greater penetration than all cars.

  • obarthelemy

    I’d rather count countries I’ve lived in and people I’ve loved though ^^

  • Fat_Man

    Stoves were invented in the 18th century. G.G. Benjamin Franklin in 1742.

  • Ian Ollmann

    Great article. Alas, seeing my lifespan quantified in so many different ways wasn’t ultimately a cheery subject. 🙂