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Research on longevity is progressing a lot, and living in a world where most people live to 150 years old is no longer a crazy idea. So what would such a world look like?
The latest research shows that some people alive today may live to be 150 years old or older.
This would profoundly affect our work, leisure, relationships, and all other aspects of our life.
What would such a world look like?
The quest for extended longevity
David Sinclair is an Australian biologist and academic, leading one of the world’s most advanced labs and research teams on longevity at Harvard.
He is also known for writing a book on the topic: Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To, where he distils the latest on longevity research.
This post is not the place to go deep into the scientific intricacies of why stopping or even reversing ageing is scientifically possible within the next few decades. It suffices to say here that thanks to a better understanding of what produces ageing, we might be able to stop its effects by taking some medicines, conducting cellular reprogramming or with some genetic engineering.
As a consequence, we would live longer and healthier lives. We would increase both our lifespan and healthspan.
A world with extreme longevity
I want to highlight here an excerpt from Sinclair’s book:
“There is simply no economic model for a world in which people live forty years or more past the time of traditional retirement. We literally have no data whatsoever on the work patterns, retirement arrangements, spending habits, health care needs, savings, and investments of large groups of people who live, quite healthily, well into their 100s. (…)
Anyone who claims to know the answer to any of these questions is a charlatan. Anyone who says these questions aren’t important is a fool. We have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen.”
Of course, we don’t, but we can always speculate and guess, and that’s what we will do next, focusing on different areas, starting with work.
Retirement and skillbbaticals
Recently there have been some demonstrations and strikes in France to protest against some measures from the government. Increasing the retirement age from 62 to 64 years was the main one.
If we get to live 150 years and are in good health, both physically and mentally, until we are 140 years old, it would not make much sense to be retired for more than half of our lives.
I’m afraid our French friends would feel compelled to strike a few more times, but at the end of the day, the arithmetic of life doesn’t fail.
If people are healthy and can work, they should do so, but it’s also true that we need some rest now and then. Can you imagine working for more than 100 years without any breaks?
Sinclair proposes the idea of “skillbbaticals”, “which might take the shape of a government-supported paid year-off for every ten worked”.
It doesn’t have to be this exact formula, but people should be able to take a year off from time to time to travel, learn new skills, dedicate some time to a personal project, or charge their batteries.
All this is considering we have to work; maybe we don’t have to.
AI and robots may do all the work, and there won’t be any work left for humans, which might be a blessing or a curse, but that’s a topic for another day.
How many careers can you have in a working life spanning 100 years?
Nowadays, some people have “midlife crises” in their forties and change careers, or after a decade of doing something, they realise it wasn’t for them after all and change jobs.
Or they just find a new purpose in their careers.
Whatever the reason, people today can have 2 or 3 very different careers in their lives in a working life spanning 40 or 50 years at most. How many can you have when longevity is extended to double or triple that time?
Skillbbaticals can help here.
In the future, people might be more open to change and to try different things for two reasons: they will have more time in front of them to try and err, and they might get tired of doing the same thing after a couple of decades.
As discussed in the post about demographic shifts, today we have four generations in the workplace, which creates some challenges.
If we are still alive and working in 2100, how many generations will coexist and will this make the workplace even more complex?
Some Gen X and Millennials may still be around, together with Gen Z, Gen Alpha and all the generations that will come afterwards. I guess by then we’ll have half the alphabet covered.
It won’t be easy to keep track of all these generations for all the HR leaders and management gurus who like to write so much about them.
Nowadays, there are some marked stages in life. People play and study when they are young, then they work for a few decades with only the weekends and vacations as time outside work, and they retire and get to enjoy some time without work the years or decades they have left in good health.
When longevity is extended considerably, age becomes just a number, and you look and feel more or less the same whether you are 40, 80 or 120 years old, things start to change.
Today, some people have gap years to travel the world before starting their careers. When you have 100 years in front of you, you may want to do that more often, especially if you can squeeze in some paid skillbbaticals every few years.
In this new world envisaged by Sinclair and others, we will keep our health and looks throughout our lifespan. These would have profound implications on how we interact with others and our leisure activities. We would have relationships (friendship and romantic) across different age brackets, even many decades apart, as we won’t really know how old people are.
Remember, age will be just a number.
I don’t have children, but I often think about how amazing it must be to see your children grow into adults and have their own children.
Now imagine that you get to know your great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren and that you are more or less as healthy and fit as them.
Wouldn’t that be something extraordinary? You would form deep bonds with family members from many different generations.
Until death do us part
Marriages are supposed to be for life, although considering most Western societies’ high divorce rates, the reality is quite different.
What would happen to the institution of marriage in a world of hyper-longevity?
For happy marriages, it would be amazing. What is not to love about sharing more time with your loved one?
There are many unhappy marriages, though; sadly, many remain unhappy for a long time. For the people living these nightmares, the vows of “until death do us part” were a sentence.
Perhaps knowing that they have still many decades of good health in front of them changes peoples’ perspective and they don’t get chained to a failed marriage for so long. Maybe it helps them make the decision sooner. Or maybe not.
The economy and consumption
Having people living healthily to their 150s would also affect the economy and consumption levels.
First, the economy. It depends on what age the centenaries retire, the levels of automation and a myriad of other factors, but it’s not clear how the current economies would create jobs for so many people when longevity is extended so much.
New services and industries would probably be created to cater to the new healthy elderly, but many other jobs would also disappear (see the healthcare section below, for example).
If young people often need help to enter the job market in the current environment, how hard would it be for them when there are already 7 or 8 generations lodged in jobs?
People earn increasingly more as they advance in their careers. They also amass wealth as they buy houses and make other investments that compound their value over decades. Then this wealth is passed onto their children as they age and die.
This process starts to fail when the oldest generations don’t die and keep living for six or seven decades more.
Would they keep amassing more and more wealth? Would we create a society with a new class division, that of the privileged elderly and the destitute young?
I don’t know enough to answer these and many other questions that come to my mind, but it is worthwhile pondering them.
Having people live longer and healthier would also impact consumption levels.
Today, people don’t consume the same things when they are 30 as when they are 80, usually due to changes in health, fitness levels, and life priorities.
When you have 120-year-olds who are as fit as young adults, their consumption levels might also become more similar.
The problem is that we cannot continue consuming the same when people die later and the population grows even more than today.
We are already consuming too much, and our dear world suffers from it.
We need to reduce consumption, whether we live to 150 or not. Having longer lives and more people living longer is an even stronger reason to reduce our consumption levels today.
Contrary to what most people may think, extended longevity would impact healthcare positively.
Today most of the costs associated with healthcare go to cover care for the elderly and to treat diseases related to old age.
Ageing itself is a disease that fosters the creation of other diseases. The moment we can reduce our cells’ ageing and extend their life, many diseases will disappear, or their effects would be reduced considerably.
Hospitals and residences for the elderly would suddenly be empty as all these illnesses disappeared.
Healthcare providers would be able to dedicate their depleted resources to researching and treating other illnesses.
Illnesses and diseases wouldn’t disappear, but their incidence would be reduced considerably, freeing up valuable resources in healthcare to focus on the diseases still affecting the population.
A world without death?
If ageing is a technical problem that can be solved, can the same be said about death?
Maybe yes, maybe not, who knows. But, as wise people tend to say, be careful what you wish for, as it may become true.
An excellent book by José Saramago, titled Death with Interruptions, explores this exact topic. Death stops acting in a country, and from a specific date, nobody dies there.
In the beginning, everybody is happy, but many problems arise. It isn’t pretty.
Death teaches us many lessons and gives meaning to life.
I am trying to decide what I think, I’m not sure yet, but I think I would rather die one day than live forever.
Forever is a long time.
I wouldn’t mind living longer, to 150 years, for example, and meeting and being friends with my great-great-great grandchildren, but that’s about it. After a while, I think I’d be happy to die, get some rest, and leave the stage to others.
150 years sounds like enough time to me now, although I probably will change my mind if I ever get there.