The Promise and Problems of Life Extension

The Modern Survival Guide #63

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And damn it all, I’m getting older. I know, it’s shocking — MTV assured me that I was going to live forever when I was 25, and life has consistently failed to measure up to that prediction.

Consequently I’ve started looking down the road, and I’ve come to a very simple conclusion: as a society, we have to start treating age differently. We have to do this because people aren’t dying as young as they used to, and quality of life is getting progressively better in middle age. And because of that, a lot of the social organization strategies that worked in the past really won’t work in the future.

This is a survival issue for us all — eventually, we’ll all get older. It’s unavoidable. So we need to come to grips with the modern realities of life extension technologies, look ahead to the consequences of future advancements in this field, and try to sort out what all that means for us.

Over the last hundred years or so, humanity has experienced a medical scientific revolution unlike anything that has ever been experienced in our history, and as a result the life expectancy of the average person has consistently increased. There are very real, serious efforts to increase it even further — both in terms of years lived and quality of life. Here’s a chart of where we are so far:

That’s a very nice looking chart, from the perspective of someone who wants to live longer. However, this rapid and fairly remarkable increase in life expectancy has issues. One of them is that people aren’t dying. I know, that seems fairly obvious, but it has massive implications for social organization and, consequently, your life.

For example, you know how Social Security always seems to be in danger of insolvency these days? Why do you think that is (aside from Congress borrowing money from it)? Well, if you look at when Social Security was put in place, the average lifespan was about 70 years. That means the average person had 5–10 years on the program. Nowadays it’s more like 15 years, and because those people aren’t dying there are more of them collecting checks. That’s a double hit on the program’s solvency.

Or consider the problem of real estate. Old people hate moving. Hell, I hate moving in my 30s, I can’t imagine how much I’m going to hate it when I’m 75. That means that old folks are staying in their houses, maintaining independence, and keeping young people out of those houses. If you don’t think this is having an effect on the housing market, you’re kidding yourself.

And to address the elephant in the room, consider the impact on medical care and costs with regard to an increasingly graying population. Getting old is expensive, because you end up spending a lot of money in hospitals and doctor’s offices. And if you don’t, your insurance provider does, which translates to premium increases across the board. And if don’t have insurance, Medicaid picks up the slack, which translates to increased strain on government resources.¹

My point is that, as with all great changes, we are only slowly beginning to realize how an increased lifespan is affecting our society — and any negative impacts are only going to get worse as time goes on.

Medical technology is not standing still. There are many, many, many plans in the works to extend human life even further, and for good reason — most of us do not want to die. And this is a noble goal. We should be working to extend both our years in this life and the quality thereof, and indications are that within the next fifty years or so we’ll see major progress in both of these areas.

But that means that there will probably be quite a lot more older people around in future years than there ever have been before. And that has social implications.

From the perspective of work, we are going to have to figure out new standards for retirement. It’s probably not sustainable for people who expect to live for a century or more to stop working at age 65. That’s just cold hard math. But that, in turn, raises issues about what workers over age 65 are going to be doing, because this implies that we should be building in re-training as part and parcel of any career.²

At the same time, we run squarely into the problem of dead men’s shoes: if the workforce is going to be populated with more people older than 65, will that mean that jobs which might otherwise be available to younger people will be occupied? And can the economy continue to expand quickly enough to accommodate new workers in each level of the job market, or will it stagnate because people can’t get promoted?

In any case it seems perfectly obvious that we need to adjust current ageist attitudes in the workplace. There are going to be more old people in the job market in the future, and that’s simply all there is to it. Employers are going to have to adjust, but that rarely happens without direct action, so I would expect more old people to get involved in unions and I would expect a legislative package to address this issue. So, you know, vote.

Meanwhile, we need to give serious thought to what life extension means in the social scene. We should expect divorce rates for older couples to increase, for example. We may also want to think about the housing paradigm, and whether that needs to change — would it be worth it for families to invest in larger homes or housing complexes to accommodate several generations, as opposed to the current single-family model?

For that matter, we’re probably going to have to redefine our attitudes towards age in general. Americans are notoriously focused on the worship of youth. That attitude simply is not going to work in a world where an increasing percentage of people will be what we now consider “old” for the majority of their lives. We’re going to have to get over the mania towards staying young. And that’s going to be hard — my intro to this article contained the phrase “damn it all, I’m getting older,” and I barely even noticed I had written that.

Also on the social front, there is the issue that a great deal of social change rests on the fact that old people die and take their opinions with them. This isn’t to say that people don’t change their opinions as they age — we have some evidence to show that they do. But anecdotally speaking, not everyone changes, and we do know that different age groups tend to have different political views. It’ll be interesting to see if an aging population results in social ossification or some new revolution.

It’s also worth noting in this context that human society has been swinging towards a more open, inclusive, peaceful state for the last hundred years or so. Which leads us to the question — if people don’t die as often, are we comfortable with the status quo of our social values? Or alternately, are we running a risk of increasing value gaps in our society?

And of course there are economic issues. For one thing, we may expect to see a change in the normal rate of inflation, since old people tend to have and hold more money than young people, and have different spending patterns. Not to mention employment changes, as we should expect to see larger and larger shifts towards industries which support life-extension practices, and associated nursing and medical care. Are we positioning ourselves correctly to respond to these events?

These are all questions that we have to start answering, and they are by no means exclusive of other issues. These little tidbits are just what occurred to me. Other, more knowledgeable people will no doubt find a whole host of potential issues to be solved as the population shifts towards a higher percentage of older people.

You’ll probably have a longer life, with better quality of life, than any other human in history. So that’s the good news — you get to see more things, do more things, and experience more of life than anyone who has ever come before you. Don’t take this for granted. It’s an absolutely momentous time to be alive, and don’t ever forget it!

It also means you’ll probably need to work longer, and save more. It may mean you need to relocate a few more times in your life to finds job opportunities or affordable housing. It may mean that it’ll become normal to get back in the dating scene at age 70. It will definitely mean that you’ll be seeing the same people for a long, long time — so hopefully we’ll have made some strides in a kinder culture by then. And that’s just the obvious stuff.

The bottom line is that this is an evolving situation and nothing is certain, but changes resulting from life extension will happen (you know, barring a nuclear war or a similarly disruptive event). And unless you are very unlucky, some of these changes will likely happen to you.

Getting old isn’t for wimps. Being old for the majority of our lives is going to take some getting used to. But that’s where we’re going as a society, and it behooves us all to start thinking about the consequences now. Because we’re all getting older — and our survival and comfort in old age depend very much on what we do in the present.

¹In a rational system, this would be reflected in higher taxes. In our system, it’s reflected in higher national debt, which is very literally a case of the old mortgaging the future of the young, but I digress.

²A common complaint against older employees is that they don’t have the skills that younger people have, particularly with computers. The implication is often that they cannot acquire these skills. This is not true, but what is true is that training budgets are rarely large enough to enable older employees to acquire new skills.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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