Is increasing longevity be good for the society or does it pose a burden on younger people? I outline where I am on this issue here because it has a lot to do with what motivates me to continue generating this Blog and update my treatise AntiAging Firewalls – the Science and Technology of Longevity.
Let me start by stressing that the intent of life extension as I am pursuing it is to extend life in a condition of health permitting constructive contribution to society. It is not to squeeze one or two more unproductive years out at the ends of lives. I am not advocating life extension if the resulting quality of life precludes continuing social contribution. I am not for keeping people alive as living vegetables in hospital or nursing home beds. I am also not very interested in extending the lives of older people who have given up all hope of contributing to others and who are basically waiting to die. It is no secret that a disproportionate share of medical costs in advanced society like ours are for advanced surgeries and expensive drugs for older people, treatments that are very limited in their effectiveness against age-related diseases. I am arguing not for such treatments but rather for measures that postpone or eliminate the typical diseases of aging. The result should be more productive years and hopefully a larger average ratio of productive years to unproductive years of life.
Now, let’s look at some of the key arguments against extending longevity.
The argument from evolution is perhaps the most respectable. It goes like this: Each species, humans included, has evolved characteristic life-spans designed to optimize the survival of that species taking into account resource limitations, a need for protection against predators and diseases, and environmental conditions. Scarce resources need to be devoted to providing for the young and raising new generations and fighting off predators and diseases during the years of rearing the young. According to this argument, need for individual survival diminishes after child-rearing years. Younger animals are stronger and can better fight off predators and diseases than older ones. From the viewpoint of the human species, then, resources are better devoted to raising and protecting children than to keeping old people around, people who are no longer part of the reproductive-child-rearing cycle. According to this argument, finding means to extend lives of old people leads to a misallocation of resources that is counter to survival of the species.
The problem with this argument is that it takes biological evolution into account but not social evolution. The argument does not take into account the ever-increasing complexity of our society, the ever-increasing requirement for education that is necessary to function well in society, the ever-increasing cost of rearing young including education, the increase in the time required for young people to become fully functional in society, and the need for people to spend more years working to cover the ever-growing costs for educating their young. As social evolution advances at an exponentially increasing rate and society continues to become more complex, there is an ever-increasing need for people to draw on vast resources of information, deep knowledge and wisdom to survive and advance the society. The time required for basic education continues to grow and continuing education becomes a lifelong necessity. Longer life spans therefore serve the need of social evolution by increasing mobilization of knowledge and wisdom.
In fact, social evolution has been working hard to extend our longevity in recent times. A few hundred years ago people typically died before 40. Now, life expectancy has roughly doubled, to about 78 for US males and 80 for females. All the other typical age-marking numbers have also roughly doubled. Once young males could join their fathers as hunters or warriors or farmers or artisans at the age of 15 and start fully contributing to society shortly thereafter. About twice as much time (30 years) is now required in an advanced society for a male to become a doctor or lawyer or physicist, to become fully engaged in his profession, to get married and have children. Females used to start having babies when they were biologically capable, around 15. Now for educated Western women, the age is roughly 30. The investment required for rearing a child has become enormous – $300,000 – $500,000 or more for a thirty year period when including the cost of preparatory education. All this change has happened in less than 400 years. The key thing to focus on is that the number of productive years – the years between completion of education and retirement – has doubled too. Instead of 20 good working years now the average is more like 40.
So, social evolution requires longer life spans because people have to become ever more sophisticated to accommodate to ever more-complex social conditions. Now as social evolution continues to accelerate at an exponential pace, it is appropriate that life spans also become extended at an accelerating rate. That is what my work is about.
My main point is this: as society becomes exponentially more complex, so a need arises for exponential growth in life expectancy. Life extension is not about older people surviving unproductively longer in retirement communities in Florida or nursing homes. It is about keeping an increasingly complex society workable.
A simplistic variant of the argument from evolution is to say extending lives is not natural. If nature or God wanted us to live to 150 or beyond, he or she would have set it up that way, the argument goes. My response is: who says what is natural? From the viewpoint of the year 1600, living lives as long as the ones we enjoy now would have been seen as highly unnatural.
Another argument against life extension is the burden on the young argument. It is another variant of the argument from evolution stating that extending the lives of older people will lead to more and more unproductive older people, an unfair burden on the young people. My response to this is that there should be no such burden. The young, by virtue of their requirement for a long and expensive period of rearing and education are already a burden on their working parents – those in their productive years. I am arguing for further extending the productive years so as to give more time for amortizing the investments in the young and minimizing the burden for those in their productive years due to having to take care of the young as well as the debilitated and unproductive old.
Another argument against life extension is that a society consisting of much older people will lack vibrancy, stress conformity and be uncompetitive compared with societies consisting of younger people. The opposite is true. In most countries in Africa and the Middle East where the population has recently exploded, the average age is now under 25. Educational level per capita is minimal, the societies and their people cannot compete on the world stage, and there appears to be a chronic condition of poverty and social hopelessness. In those countries lives are not seen to be worth much and average life spans are relatively short. In advanced Western countries where there is large investments in education and life spans are long, lives are worth a lot. It just takes a lot of years for people to come up to speed so they can compete in the world economy today.
The final argument against life extension I will deal with here is it will drive our social security and retirement systems broke. True, if people live longer and longer on the average and we don’t adjust our retirement ages and expectations for retirement upwards, We need to readjust our thinking about older people working. I am one of possibly a million people around 80 who is perfectly capable of handling a full-time job. As it happens to be, I am working 50-70 hours a week, self-employed and basically concerned with longevity science. However, virtually no businesses, government agencies or health institutions are willing to employ people my age in regular jobs. Twenty five years ago, 60 was the mandatory retirement age. Now it is 65 and possibly going on 70. As longevity increases and larger number of people are taking anti-aging measures, we need to change the culture so these people are not automatically thrown out of the work force when they reach an arbitrary chronological age.
Here is my vision: A society where people live longer and more healthily, where the average period of suffering from end-of-life disability grows shorter and shorter compared to the total, where the knowledge and wisdom of older people is put fully to work, and where longevity translates into productivity that helps all.