Period life expectancies are commonly used to compare populations, but these correspond to simple juxtapositions of current mortality levels. In order to construct life expectancies for cohorts, a complete historical series of mortality rates is needed, and these are available for only a subset of developed countries. The truncated cross-sectional average length of life (TCAL) is a new measure that captures historical information about all cohorts present at a given moment and is not limited to countries with complete cohort mortality data. The value of TCAL depends on the rates used to complete the cohort series, but differences between TCALs of two populations remain similar irrespective of the data used to complete the cohort series. This result is illustrated by a comparison of TCALs for the US with those for Denmark, Japan, and other high-longevity countries. Specific cohorts that account for most of the disparity in mortality between the populations are identified.