There’s a reason why when radical longevity is entertained in the media it gets a negative rap. It’s simple, really. Humans have a hard time envisioning a world that fundamentally differs than what we know. Change is uncomfortable. No denying it. Even a slight adjustment in routine can be enough to disrupt a person’s day. But innovation, above all else, is also what distinguishes human beings from all other species on earth. It’s in our genes.
In less than 100 thousand years (a short span on an evolutionary time scale) human intelligence has flourished. In just over 10 thousand years, humans transitioned from a nomadic to a settled way of life and human civilization took off. In one hundred years, technology has done the same.
In the same vein, as human history progressed to where we are today, life expectancy has been increasing steadily, from 20 to 40 to 80 to… maybe 160? All things considered, we’ve adapted pretty well. Sure we have our modern problems, but so did every other age.
So when we’re told that the science will soon exist that will potentially double human life expectancy, the proposition is inherently scary. Not to mention, when we think about old age, disability immediately comes to mind. Nobody wants to be old because nobody wants to be sick; but we forget that the science will prolong good health too. Put it into perspective: if the length of our lives is doubled, so too will the best years of our lives. The good times will end, but with two lives worth of what we have now.
Dispelling our dystopian fears
The future is weird. The future is human. It’s not that scary a place. Even though we tend to make it out to be. The 2011 movie In Time is a perfect example. The film description says it all, “In a future where people stop aging at 25, but are engineered to live only one more year, having the means to buy your way out of the situation is a shot at immortal youth.” Time is money, literally, and life is turned into a zero-sum game.
But an important thing this dystopian world—with its strict population control to prevent overcrowding, and economic and longevity inequality (grossly more so than what already exists today)—gets wrong is that life extension technology won’t be wielded like whips in the hands of the rich for the subjugation of the poor. Where’s the money in that? Radical longevity is a potential multi-billion dollar industry.It’s in everyone’s best interests that life-extenders are accessible to everyone. There might be some social disruption on the way, but life-extenders will eventually trickle down the socioeconomic classes, just like any other piece of technology.
That’s not to say concerns over how radical longevity will affect our society are invalid. Longer lives raise several important policy questions on how a longer-lived population will influence the economy, how and what social services will be provided, how rights and obligations are balanced between multiple generations in the workplace and in society at large.
The future is in our hands
Maybe it’s the dark side of radical longevity that weighs heavily on people’s mind: transhumanism, immortality, the predicted cyberization of human kind, where life is radically altered and revolutionized in the latter half of this century.
Closer in our purview is the promises of gene therapy and eugenics. We’re all familiar with the talk of disease free, high tech designer babies, our concerns with eugenic practices, and government has responded appropriately. Currently in Canada, under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, even sex selection is banned unless it is for the purposes of preventing, diagnosing or treating a sex-linked disorder or disease.
Sonia Arrison, author and analyst of all things related to the societal impact of radical human longevity, helps put the science into perspective when discussing eugenics and longevity:
“There’s lots of really good ways to extend health expectancy that don’t include introducing new genes. That said, I think the ability to change our biological code does bring up some serious issues that society will have to address one at a time. The goal should be health, not mad science.”
Remember that none of this science is happening in a bubble, but is being funded and commissioned to make our lives better. TheMillennial generation is growing up with these scientific breakthroughs and we will likely be the first to majorly benefit from it and the ones to decide what kind of impact life-extending technology will have on our society.
Cultural and technological innovation
With an already aging population and baby boomers reaching retirement age in a decade, modern nations are struggling with how to handle changes in life expectancy. As people begin living longer lives, demographics shift such that the elderly, non-working generations create a bigger drain on the economy, while at the same time power becomes consolidated in an older, less in tune politicians and professionals, in both the public and private sectors, that don’t know upside from down when it comes to tackling the problems of contemporary society. Old people are old, unable to comprehend changing technology. They are obsolete, as the stereotype goes. I had my own concerns. For as long as civilization existed, cultural ideas have been transmitted across generations and death was the natural way to let the newer generation build off the old.
As Brad Allenby, professor of sustainable engineering at Arizona State University puts it, writing for Slate’s Future Tense blog: “The young and innovative will be held at bay, prevented from creating new information forms and generating cultural, institutional, and economic breakthroughs. And where death used to clear the memory banks, there I stand ... for 150 years. The impact on technological innovation could be devastating.”
Humans living longer lives can possibly stunt future developments if the older generation fails to fade into obscurity and stays in play. Social progress will halt. Outdated and outmoded ideas, practices and policies will frustrate the harbingers of the new.
According to Arrison, however, these concerns are based on false assumptions. “In fact, innovation tends to peak at age 40 and then tends to go downhill from there (except in math and athletics which peak earlier),” she told me in our interview. “Some people think the reason it goes downhill after 40 is because that’s when people’s health starts to get worse. If individuals can stay healthier for longer periods of time, we may see innovation continue well past 40, which would be beneficial for society.”
The transmission of ideas isn’t one-sided, with the newer, younger generations learning from the older ones and then casting them aside.Given how complex and knowledge intensive the fields of science and technology are becoming, having experienced, knowledgeable people around for a lot longer is a boon rather than a bust.
“The other thing to keep in mind,” Arrison adds,“is how much we as a society lose when a well-educated and thoughtful person dies – it’s like losing an encyclopedia that then needs to be built up again in other people.”
Concerns over productivity
However, there are real concerns over economic productivity and stagnation in the workplace. Older workers are concerned over outliving their retirement savings and may forego retiring until later on in life, thereby staying in the workforce longer. This will lead to increased competition for jobs between the experienced veterans and eager to work graduates.
Already, younger adults have to undergo increased education and training to compete in the job market, including the recent increase in unpaid internships. From own experience as a young professional, seeking employment is tough in this hyper-competitive market where jobs are not as available as they once were.
“Job availability is a real concern, and it’s something to which leaders and policy makers will need to pay attention,” said Arrison. “One thing to consider is that, even when healthy, the boomers may not want to work full time so that opens up space in the market. The other thing to consider is that older people tend to be more expensive than younger people for payroll, so that gives an advantage to younger people (who are disadvantaged because of their lack of experience and rolodex).”
Remember, age concerns apply both ways. Silicon Valley, the hub of technological innovation, has come under recent fire for age discrimination, a problem they may or may not be willing to solve. The release of diversity reports from major tech companies were almost identical and, suspiciously, there was no mention of age or any explanation as to why age wasn’t included.
I’m wondering if the youth movement and the celebration the young’s ability to innovate is nothing but ageism. That would be unfortunate. Both youth and veterans alike have important things to contribute to our ever-changing world.
Planning for the future
We plan our lives based on what we know, what support options are available and what we predict our future options will be. For young professionals, this means relying on our parents longer for support while we pursue education and tack on credentials, delaying marriage and childrearing in exchange for establishing ourselves in our careers. This behaviour may seem strange to our parents (I know it is for mine; my mother was in her early twenties when she had me and scoffs at the fact that I don’t plan on starting a family until my early thirties).
But it’s not weird at all, just conscientious decision-making. Consider this stretching out of young adulthood a function of societal progression. Scientific and technological advancement is intricately living longer lives. The related costs of buying a house and raising a child are soaring and there will be more potential caretakers available when Millenials do start their families.
Society is already adapting and longevity is giving us more flexibility in how we live our lives. We should start considering the implications where 80 becomes the new 40, 40 becomes the new 20, 20 becomes the new 10 (just kidding, but you get my drift), and adjust accordingly. Let’s stretch out childhood, give more time for exploration and play, focus on developing interest in life and generate more opportunities to learn and take pleasure in what’s important to us. Slow down the rat race.
After all, if we’re aspiring to reach a point where humans can (practically) live forever, we don’t want to get bored! If we start living longer lives and stay in near perfect health well into our 100s, there’s no point frontloading the excitement and then falling into depression in retirement.
As author Gemma Malley writes, also for Future Tense: “The reason [retirees] get depressed is because when you’re retired, it is easy to feel like you have nothing to live for anymore, no purpose, nothing to get up for, no reason to even get dressed. In a word, they are bored.”
The sense of urgency we feel in our lives, to work, to love, to grow a family, to find success and pursue our passions, we grab at opportunities because there may not be another chance. You only live once, as the saying goes. Our mortality gives us meaning, what drives us is the fact that nothing lasts forever. What that means is that boredom and depression are a function on where those boundaries are set, rather than how long we live. If our life spans double from 80 to 160, no one would want to spend the second half of their lives retired, living in a literal purgatory waiting to die. That would be torture (especially for prisoners sentenced for life behind bars without parole). But, if the boundaries are stretched out between birth and death, not cut off by an arbitrary age, loss of meaning becomes less of a concern.
In Arrison’s opinion, we won’t know “what age boredom will set in until we get there (when life expectancy was 43, one might have argued that living to 80 years would create a boredom problem and it hasn’t).” I have to agree. Society needs to change and we have to adapt our frame of minds so that, at all stages in life, no matter how many additional decades humans live in the future than we do now, we will have responded such that there will always be opportunities for engagement in the world.
Living into the unknown
Radical longevity is full of unknowns and inconsistencies: living longer lives will make us broke, living longer brings economic benefits; maybe longevity will spur a shift from a spending into a saving economy; it means the explosion of nuclear families, century long love affairs, retirement difficulties; ageism and sexism as the elderly also wish to have it all. But we’re talking about it, that’s the important thing. There are a lot of aspects to consider and problems to solve.
The future promises longer, better, richer lives. It’s possible that in less than half a century, between genetic augmentation, medical nanotechnology, and super vaccines, aging will no longer be a given, it will be an option. Whatever’s in store, when that future comes, we’ll be thanking our past selves they were paying attention.
Even if we can’t perfectly predict the future, one thing’s for certain.
We’ll be ready.
Nobody wants to be old because nobody wants to be sick; but we forget that the science will prolong good health too. Put it into perspective: if the length of our lives is doubled, so too will the best years of our lives. The good times will end, but with two lives worth of what we have now.
It’s in everyone’s best interests that life-extenders are accessible to everyone. There might be some social disruption on the way, but life-extenders will eventually trickle down the socioeconomic classes, just like any other piece of technology.