At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a group of biologists discussed how, in the near future, people could expect to live 100 years. A longer, healthier life is good news to most, but predictably some speakers took a negative, almost pro-death, stance.
Stanford University biologist Dr. Shripad Tuljapurkar presented a model examining the demographic and economic effects of increased longevity. He said that between 2010 and 2030, anti-aging therapies will increase the normal lifespan by 20 years — an estimate many scientists consider “moderate.” He also predicted that an increase in longevity would create twice as many American retirees as working people. This, he said, would double the dependency ratio and increase the costs of Social Security and Medicare. That’s, of course, if everything stays the same.
A System in Danger
In a scenario where people are living longer and healthier lives, it’s likely that the retirement age would increase and that most people would want it that way. Indeed, Dr. Tuljapurkar generated an estimate of such a scenario and concluded that the retirement age would have to climb to 85 in order to keep current social systems from collapsing.
Social Security reform has been a serious issue for a number of years. Many policy watchers already think the system will collapse because of sheer mismanagement. Adding increased life spans to the mix just makes things more difficult, but not everyone was pessimistic.
Dr. Eileen M. Crimmins, chair of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said the future may not be as problematic as some believe.
“Now the question is: What will the adverse consequences of living a long life be?” she asked. “I think they will not be anything we cannot deal with. The issue will be adjusting to those changes with sensible policies, which include changing the length of working life.”
She’s right — but there are other anti-longevity arguments that must also be addressed, such as the idea of creating a two-tiered mortality society. Dr. Tuljapurkar suggested that anti-aging technologies would usher in a new level of inequality among individuals and nations.
“It’s entirely likely to me that we’ll wind up with a permanent global underclass — countries that get locked into today’s mortality conditions,” he said.
That prediction seems to arise every time a new technology creates a significant change in society. What normally happens is that the wealthy and educated do get it first.
New technologies are typically expensive, not guaranteed to work, and have a limited supply. Because of those factors, early adopters tend to be the people who have money, are willing to take risks, and actively seek out new advances. However, just because the rich were the first to get indoor plumbing, radio, telephone, television and the Internet does not mean that these technologies do not make their way to the rest of the population.
The political viewpoint that anti-aging technologies are problematic because not everyone gets them at the same time is either blindly impatient or a thinly concealed argument in favor of death. Some individuals might conclude they are too old to benefit from the technology. If they can’t live longer and healthier lives, the thinking goes, then no one else should either. That view may offend some people’s sensibilities, but it does exist.
It remains unclear what drives Dr. Tuljapurkar’s worry that anti-aging technologies won’t spread like other advances. Whatever the motive, we should be wary of irrational solutions that call on governments to limit important scientific work. Longer lives will help us generate solutions to potential longevity problems.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.
I was the organizer of the symposium at which Dr. Tuljapurkar spoke, and he has been widely misquoted and misinterpreted. He did not suggest that we should not develop anti-aging technology – free market research will probably be beyond regulatory control in any case. He simply made projections based on a reasonable assumption of technological advance, and said that we must start planning now for these changes. Even without anti-aging technology, we need to reform social security funding; this would be exacerbated greatly under even a modest scenario.
As regards a global underclass, it is true that much of the world has been left out of the wealth that a few nations enjoy, and that with a few exceptions the problem has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years according to World Bank development indices. Anti-aging therapy would not necessarily make it much worse than otherwise, but it might make it more difficult to change this situation, which may be hopeless in any case. The point Dr. Tuljapurkar was making, and which I would make emphatically, is that if we start planning now and developing sound policy, we may be able to develop and distribute anti-aging technology in such a way that it has less impact on global inequality. Even if that is not possible, it is good to think in advance about the consequences of new technology.
This is not a black-and-white issue, but it is an issue which could have huge consequences for everyone in many ways, and it is best to start considering those consequences ahead of time.
University of Missouri-St. Louis