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….

  1. Yeah...ok.

    I could outlive my tortoises.

    Maybe see the Cubs in a World Series.

    You’re not suggesting one could live long enough to see the Cubs Win a World Series, are you?

  2. Lee

    I’d definitely take the pill. 120 years of healthy life seems like a very reasonable proposition–not too long to make us lose perspective but long enough that we’d be pushed to fill out our days with more than golfing and bingo.

    As far as societal changes, I’d expect to see people embarking on two or more very distinct careers in their lifetime (I know I want to do more than I could ever hope to achieve in one lifetime). We’d have more time to commit to technological and science research, so those areas might flourish as a result. I’d think that the justice system would be impacted in substantial ways, as a life sentence would take on extra significance. We might see less marriage, more divorce, delayed childbearing (which might spur science towards extending fertility as a matter of course). Actuary tables would have to be completely overhauled, contracts of all kinds rewritten.

    I’m on board with life extension but not immortality. We’d cease to be human in the most meaningful way. Still, if it’s possible, it will be offered and I would be tempted even if I regretted it later.

  3. Z in MT

    I would have to say I am much more skeptical about life extension in a pill.  Can it stop knees and hips from wearing out, arteries from clogging, stop cancer from growing, stop dementia from encroaching?

    Another issue is the law of averages says that most won’t reach 120 because they die of accidentsviolence etc.

    But given you are correct, being a middle manager, lawyer, professor, writer until age 120 may work, but who would want to be a brick layer, construction worker, or truck driver much past age 60-65?

    Sometimes, people both on the left and the right forget that there is a large fraction of the population that don’t have the intelligence, attitude, or desire to do thinking type jobs.  These people work with their bodies and bodies wear out (often long before standard retirement age).  As conservatives we have to make sure our policy prescriptions work for these people too.

  4. Aaron Miller
    John Walker:

    A population in which half of the electorate has “seen it all” may be profoundly more conservative than one dominated by youth.

    Then how does one explain Florida? Old people, like people of any age group, tend to vote selfishly. They will vote for whichever candidate promises to protect their retirement plans. Not all retirees, of course, but enough of them.

    Speaking of retirement, Steyn is right that adulthood is that ever shrinking space between adolescence and retirement. The notion that elderly folks shouldn’t have to work so hard and need help is as old as human history. But the notion that able-bodied people are entitled to stop working is relatively new. Plenty of old people take on post-retirement jobs, but we no longer expect people to work as long as they are able.

    Such adverse consequences of increasing life expectancy might not be necessary, but they are predictable and already engrained in modern culture.

  5. Aaron Miller

    Even apart from politics, I’m not entirely sure ever-growing life expectancy is a good thing.

    The human body completes healthy maturation in one’s 20s and is already breaking down by one’s 30s. Whatever we refer to as “middle-aged” for social reasons, a person’s physical existence enters its final stage — the stage of decline — decades before the age range we associate with retirement and grandparenting.

    There is obviously much a person can do without a healthy body. And there is more to life than direct utility. Old age is a greater lesson in humility and charity, for the young and old alike. But does it seem right to you that people should commonly spend the majority of their lives in a state of physical deterioration?

    I can only fumble at the will of God, of course. But the only sense I can make of such a situation is that it old age softens our hedonistic impulses and encouragess us to focus on spiritual growth.

  6. John Walker
    Aaron Miller:

    But does it seem right to you that people should commonly spend the majority of their lives in a state of physical deterioration?

    No, that does not seem right to me, and if that were the expected outcome, I don’t think the people who are working on life extension would be pursuing their research.  You are correct that in many ways it’s all downhill from around age 30, but I’m on the north side of twice that age and wouldn’t for a moment exchange what I’ve learned and experienced for the shape I was in 30 years ago (actually, I’m in much better shape now than then, but that’s a different issue about which I’ve written a book).

    The goal of most longevity research is prolonging the healthy adult lifespan, which might mean suspending the aging process at age 60, with no further deterioration for the next 60 years.  If this sounds like science fiction, check out the Drosophila work in Does Aging Stop?  If this is possible, I suspect most people would opt for a 60 year plateau rather than inexorable decline.

  7. TeamAmerica

    Rob Long-”Does this mean we’ll eventually have 40 year-old adolescents?

    Wait. We already do.”

    Longer life spans will definitely prolong adolescence and cause people to postpone child-bearing till they’re 40-80. I think it might then aggravate birth-dearths.

  8. Pilli

    When my little sweetie was born 13 years ago, a close friend (who was very close to the health research industry) mentioned that she might just live to be 150 years old given the rate of advances being made.  He also mentioned that if she does live that long, that by then she might have the choice of whether or not she wanted to die.  Certainly her children would have that choice.

    Move over Lazarus Long.

  9. Randy Webster

    A more interesting speculation is what the ramifications for society would be if you could get your life extension, but it cost $10 million.

  10. John Walker
    Randy Webster: A more interesting speculation is what the ramifications for society would be if you could get your life extension, but it cost $10 million.

    Norman Spinrad explored this in Bug Jack Barron.  When you have immortality as a bribe….

  11. Barkha Herman

    I sure hope so, John (Longevity = more conservatives).

    My husband is one of those who wouldn’t mind living to be 1000.  And my 17 year old son is convince that by the time we are in our 80s, the life span would have been extended at least to 150.  

    I myself am not that hopeful, even though I will welcome it; and I am a big fan of this young lady – Laura Deming – who is working on life extension.

    I think life extension is inevitable, but the jury is out on “it will happen in the next X years”.  The good news is that there are some very bright people working on it.

  12. Rob Long

    Does this mean we’ll eventually have 40 year-old adolescents?

    Wait.  We already do.

  13. Brasidas

    John, you’ve piqued my interest.  Please do write more about this.   I’d take the pill on the mere chance that doing so might allow me to live long enough to see an aging and, therefore, wiser — and more conservative — population.  But, I wonder if that wiser, more conservative populace would favor more freedom or more security.  If the former, good.  If the latter, then perhaps extending the enjoyable, productive years of the average individual would provide more fertile ground for social and financial insurance and entitlement programs, government administered, of course.  

  14. Michael Minnott

    Once retirement programs go belly up, people will essentially have no choice other than to keep working. Demographically there already aren’t enough young people to support SS and Medicare in 20 years.

  15. Frustrated iPad User

    Your mention of life long appointments is a great example. Why has this not stopped? It’s ridiculous. 

    Couldn’t we have all the benefits of lifelong appointments without the obvious downsides by just making the appointments 25 years long? Anything to remove the incentive to appoint younger and younger judges.

    We have to start making laws which recognize changing times, and change ones that haven’t changed along with them. We need to address root problems, not today’s fads. 

  16. Judith Levy
    John Walker: 120…is roughly the limit to human lifespan imposed by shortening of telomeres in cell division. …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.

    Wow. This is a truly frightening idea. I hope most sincerely that the fourth revolution doesn’t hit until after I kick the bucket (at 120).

    Curiously, Jewish people have been blessing one another with the phrase “may you live to 120″ since forever. It’s sung at every child’s birthday party here in Israel. I think the reference is to Moses, who was said to have lived until 120 “with his eye undimmed nor his vigor diminished”. Interesting how we hit on just the number.

    I note, from the page you linked to on the Frenchwoman who lived to 122, that she ate a kilo of chocolate a week. Just saying.

  17. michael kelley


    This is an incredibly interesting post.  Thanks for taking the time.

  18. Foxman
    Rob Long: Does this mean we’ll eventually have 40 year-old adolescents?

    Wait.  We already do. · February 19, 2013 at 8:52pm

    Many are found in and around Hollywood.

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