How would you like to live to be 200?
The odds of living radically extended lifespans is a near certainty.
(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part One.)
As always, we should be careful what we wish for.
Let’s begin by assuming a series of breakthroughs happen and the human race is no longer plagued by short lifespans.
Using indefinite existence as a premise, meaning that we find a way to dramatically delay the effects of human aging along with most of the normal deteriorations of the human body associated with aging, how will this change society?
We're already constantly changing as individuals. You are literally not the same person you were five minutes ago. People are more like trajectories through some space of possible identities and configurations, connected by an identity thread between who you were before and what you'll likely be next.
With that given, someone who lives for a long time will undergo an unimaginable amount of change. People now look back to how they were when they were younger, with different attitudes and experiences. Imagine that, a thousand-fold.
I realize this requires a rather large quantum-leap-of-faith between a world where average lifespans of 70-80 years old are doubled, tripled or even longer, but for the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s make that assumption.
Let’s also assume the cost of an indefinite lifespan is generally affordable by everyone and that people will not experience any significant deterioration to their quality of life for most of their existence.
While these are huge assumptions, my goal in stepping you through this trial balloon is to talk through whether or not this dream is as rosy or gloomy as many of us seem to imagine.
Weighing the Positives Against the Negatives
It’s hard to imagine how different life will be when over 50 percent of the world’s population is over 100. Not all of it will be good and the positives will certainly offset some of the negatives, if not most of them. But let’s consider some of the far-reaching implications:
1.) Improved Health – Living a super long life means we will have cured most diseases and corrected the majority of human biological flaws setting the stage for even more radical life extensions, perhaps even moving towards something "post-human,” or even “turbo-human."
2.) Delayed Death – Our greatest fear is death and our world is consumed by it. We think about it relentlessly. Most book, movie, and television storylines use death as a focal point in their message. But what if death was universally fixable and only one hundredth as important as it is today? Without today’s universal death-focus we would be free to think far more creatively and far more expansively.
3.) Dramatically Improved Intelligence – With age comes wisdom, along with improvements to our biological intelligence and the acuity of our sensory systems. Logically this should lead to us having enhanced abilities to understand, appreciate and change the world in ways we cannot yet imagine.
4.) New Age of Discovery – For the most part, we don’t know what challenges and opportunities super long lifespans will bring. On the plus side, we may have greater contentment, less volatile systems, and greater social wealth. But on the downside, we may discover diseases that only occur to people over 140, have a harder time dealing with disruptive thinking, and cling to things that should have been dismantled decades, even centuries, earlier.
5.) New Social Structures – What kind of relationships will a person’s great, great, great grandparents have with their grandchildren? How intimate will family relationships be when there are 7-10 generations of relatives attending a family gathering?
6.) More Stable Society – With longevity comes stability and the pace of change will begin to stabilize. This will mean less volatility in human-based systems like governments, markets, policies, and political will. History is a great teacher, but it is an even greater teacher if we’ve lived through it ourselves.
7.) Additional Levels of Maturity – We will learn from our mistakes, and with literally centuries of mistakes under our belts, we’ll tend to avoid making the most painful ones again in the future.
8.) More Diverse Economy – Since the needs of a 250 year old are vastly different than the needs of a 50 year old, we will be inventing new market categories with products we can’t yet imagine.
In most cases the “negatives” can also be construed as positives when viewed from a slightly different perspective.
1.) Old System Failures – Today’s retirement-based systems will fundamentally break down if people retire at age 65 and then live another 200 years. No one will be interested in life insurance if people no longer die at a predictable age. No more assisted living centers, senior Olympics, probate courts, estate taxes, nursing homes, or senior discounts.
2.) Messy Transition – Since it is unlikely that we will be able to reverse aging, a person who is 20 year olds will continue to look like some version of a 20 year old and those who are 90 will continue to look like some version of 90 year olds. Eventually most of the visual characteristics we associate with aging will disappear, but those caught during this transition period will be the anomalies.
3.) Family Dynasties – Well-managed families will accumulate wealth, power, and influence far beyond anything possible today. Sins of the past will continue to haunt influential families long into the future.
4.) Wealth Controlled by the Super Old – Today’s wealth transitions will be replaced by tomorrow’s wealth entrenchments. For many of the super old, the gamesmanship of being a master manipulator will be their form of entertainment. Today’s puppet masters will seem like amateurs when compared to tomorrows social-chess-masters.
5.) Super Entrenched Political Systems – If you can imagine a time when 47 former presidents are still alive, and all 47 come from 4 different families, you’ll begin to get the picture.
6.) Loss of Urgency – When people live to ages of 200-300 and our working life is 5-10 times longer than it is now, today’s urgency will become tomorrow’s acceptability. While deadlines will still exist, the penalty for missing them will be less onerous and less significant.
7.) Loss of Innovation – Along with longer lifespans will come an increased resistance to change. Family dynasties and entrenched political systems will give way to higher barriers to change and greater political resistance to changing the status quo.
8.) Heavy-Handed Population Control – Since most people instantly jump to overpopulation as being one of the key issues, even though it won’t be, look for a series of population control measures to be implemented from country to country including child bearing licenses, extra child taxes, limited paid maternity leaves, etc.
About 65 percent of today’s jobs in the U.S. are information jobs that didn't exist 25 years ago, and over the next 25 years we will get far better at using advanced forms of bioinformatics and biotechnology to reprogram our bodies away from disease, frailties, and all the characteristics we tend to associate with human aging.
To be clear, I‘m a big fan of having people live longer, and I’m even okay with eliminating human aging altogether. But it’s far better to move into an era like this with our eyes open, knowing that the downside may be more severe than any of us suspected.
In my estimation, the odds of reaching a point where people never die is zero. It actually becomes a meaningless argument because proving that someone is capable of living forever will mean someone will have to live longer than the person who lives forever, and that’s not possible.
However, the odds of most people living radically extended lifespans is a near certainty. The progress we’ve made in understanding human biology is remarkable, and continued breakthroughs are inevitable.