Life Extension: Political and Cultural Consequences
In a comment on Peter Robinson's post about the wisdom of the Pope's opting to resign, I made a reference to the possible consequences of extension of the human lifespan on the culture and politics. Here, I'd like to expand on that.
First of all, let me define what I'm talking about when I speak of life extension. While the mean human lifespan at birth has risen from 33 years in the paleolithic to a global average of 67.2 years in 2010 (and 82.6 years in Japan), most of this change prior to 1950 was due to reductions in infant mortality. Human mortality was originally a “bathtub curve” with high mortality in infancy and childhood, low mortality through the child-bearing and -rearing years, and exponentially growing mortality thereafter. What was achieved through progress in medicine and public health measures was primarily suppressing deaths before adolescence, to such an extent that what was once commonplace is now considered a rare tragedy.
This flattened the left side of the bathtub curve, but did little to change the right side. Old people today live about as long as they did in the paleolithic: it's just that a much larger fraction of the population reaches old age than used to. In essence, progress in medicine has made the right side of the curve steeper without moving it much to the right. More recently, supportive therapies (for example, coronary bypass surgery) have extended the life of elderly persons, but little has been done to deal with the physical and mental debilitation of aging. This means that there is the potential for a prolongation of the “twilight years”, which may have profound consequences for pension schemes conceived when few people lived much beyond age 65.
I believe that we may be at the threshold of a third revolution in human life extension. The first was reducing infant and child mortality; the second was allowing more and more people to live to the limit of the original human lifespan; the third will be extending that limit substantially.
My model for the third revolution is a world in which the mean lifespan of humans is on the order of 120 years, with quality of life and health at age 120 comparable to that of those of age 60 today. There are multiple avenues of research underway that are exploring approaches to this goal—I will not get into the details here (although I may in subsequent posts, if there is interest in the topic)—and I consider it more likely than not that this goal will be achieved within the next 20 years.
I choose 120 as the goal of the third revolution because that is roughly the limit to human lifespan imposed by shortening of telomeres in cell division. I am aware of three groups working on removing this constraint and, should they succeed, this limit may be breached. Lobsters express telomerase in all of their cells, and they appear to have biological immortality (in other words, they don't die of old age). While we don't look that much alike, humans and lobsters aren't all that different at the level of molecular biology and one can imagine a pill which turns on the telomerase gene in every human cell. That will be the fourth revolution. For the moment, however, let's just consider the third.
Enough about the how—let's assume healthy life extension to around age 120 happens. What will be the consequences? Now, everybody today is talking about demographic shifts and their political ramifications, but here is something which will upend demographics in a way without precedent.
The essence is really simple: humans learn from experience, and especially from bad experiences. The longer you live, the more folly and bad outcomes you've observed, which strengthens immunity to bad ideas when they come around the next time. Anybody who lived through the Carter administration will necessarily have a different view of similar policy choices than ones who didn't. Having been around through three or four economic cycles and a few financial bubbles imbues a wisdom difficult to obtain by reading the experiences of others.
In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, Romney carried those 65 and older by 12 points, but they made up only 16% of the electorate. Imagine if that number were, say, 40%. (Yes, that slice of the electorate presently differs in other demographics from the younger. And yet, as people of all demographics reach that age, will not their interests converge?)
In August, 1988 I wrote:
The reason we end up with such irrational governments is that more than half of the electorate hasn't lived long enough to have any concept of how the world works. We need life extension in order to have enough world-wise geezers around to elect rational politicians.
It seems to me that conservatism, at its core, is based in substantial part on a belief that most ideas, however great they may sound, work poorly, and that most innovations make things worse. The human experience has been a trial and error process of discovering those things that work least poorly, and should be respected, not discarded with the blithe abandon of youth. The longer you've lived, the more opportunity you've had to learn this by experience.
A population in which half of the electorate has “seen it all” may be profoundly more conservative than one dominated by youth. With the present structure of social programs, the elderly have a strong incentive to support them, but with an extension of healthy lifespan, the retirement age would expand apace (it will have to, lest current pension schemes collapse), and these centenarians will be workers and taxpayers who will vote their pocketbooks.
Some may consider, as Peter Robinson did, the idea of all of these old people hanging around “creepy”, and he invited me to “de-creep” the idea. Well, the thing about technology is that, creepy or not, it has a way of happening whether you like it or don't. Suppose there were a pill called AgeFix™ which cost $2 per daily dose, and would extend your lifespan to 120 years without any debilitation after age 60. Would you pay for it? Can you imagine that, were it to exist, there would not be a clamor for those unable to afford it to obtain it for “free”? Now, I may be completely wrong and all of these research teams working in this direction may fail (but before you assume they will, read up on the Methuselah fly), but if they succeed I do not think there is any force which will keep them from becoming widespread—the human lust for life will not be denied.
Institutions will have to be adjusted. Lifetime tenure for judges is probably a poor idea, and term limits for politicians will become even more necessary. We'll have to see how long-lived business leaders perform: will wisdom and experience trump the innovation of youth? But that's something the market can sort out. As one who has committed science fiction from time to time, I pose this to the Richochetoises et Ricochetois: assume we get the extension of the healthy lifespan to 120 years with a pill. Would you take the pill and what changes do you foresee in a society in which it exists?