Abstract Using stochastic simulations and elasticity analysis, we show that there are inherent differences in the risk of extinction between life histories with different demographies. Which life history is the most vulnerable depends on which vital rate varies. When juvenile survival varies semelparous organisms with delayed reproduction are the most vulnerable ones, while a varying developmental rate puts a greater threat to semelparous organisms with rapid development. Iteroparous organisms are the most vulnerable ones when adult survival varies. Generally, we do not expect to observe organisms in nature having variation in vital rates that produce a high risk of extinction. Given the results here we therefore predict that iteroparous organisms should show low variation in adult survival. Moreover, we predict that semelparous organisms should show low variation in juvenile survival and low variation in developmental rate. The effect of temporal correlation on extinction risk is most pronounced in organisms with semelparous life histories.