Published in Dagens Industri 2016
What will life look like when being older is the norm? Humankind will be the first species to have more seniors than children. With every passing year, the life expectancy for newborns is 3 months longer. To me it is a staggering thought that my youngest child’s life expectancy is almost two years longer than my oldest child’s. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, half of everyone born today will celebrate their 100th birthday. Today there are about 500,000 individuals in the world who have lived over one hundred years. By 2050, there will be almost 4 million.
Humanity has lived for nearly 8,000 generations, but only in the last four have we seen a dramatic increase in life expectancy. Since 1840, we have seen a linear development that is expected to continue at the same rate for the foreseeable future.
If there is a medical breakthrough that counteracts aging, we will experience an even faster societal transformation. In experiments at the Buck Institute in California, worms are now living five times longer than their natural lifespan. At Harvard University researchers have reported not only that they have been able to halt the aging process in mice, but that they have even seen rejuvenation. Last year, Google decided to try to extend life by founding the California Life Company (Calico) and yet another company called 23andme can predict the likelihood of life’s serious illnesses through a single DNA test. With the breakthrough of CRISPR-Cas9, we are engineering a revolution in gene editing technology. Using the system, scientists can modify the genetic code of virtually any species to potentially augment abilities.
There is also an exciting market for new technological aids that compensate for human aging in areas that medical research cannot yet contribute to. Robotic prosthetics support broken hips, sensors on the body provide signals as soon as the heart falters, super earpieces isolate conversations far away, the Asian robotic dog Pepper makes seniors mentally healthier through companionship and Google Glass helps people with fading memories find the names for faces they do not recognize.
The doomsday image of an aging society depicts the enormous toll it will have on healthcare as well as a collapse of the pension system. But research centers around the world are focused on increasing “length of health” by creating the conditions for a healthier life with fewer days of illness, which could have both surprising and far-reaching effects.
What happens when we all live to be over 100 years old? It’s staggering to picture one’s life over an entire century, and perhaps the phases of life will change. In a world full of centenarians, we need to re-design life, not just extend it. We are going to be more long-sighted and re-prioritize education, work and family when we know that the likelihood that we will celebrate our 100th birthday is high. Time has several dimensions. We cannot change the natural progression that adds years to our lives or the fact that our age increases at the same rate, but the social norms that define what we are expected to do in each life phase are variable. Lifelong learning, mid-life breaks when children are small and more intensive work later in life all feel like natural consequences that educators and employers should plan for. Universities and educational institutions will probably have a golden market if they target curious seniors.
The total Happiness Index in countries will increase as many studies show that we are happier in the later stages of life when material successes are no longer as important. But how long do we actually want to live? When Pew Research Center asked the American people what they thought of various means of extending life, some said they would want treatments to extend their lives – but the overwhelming majority said they would not want such treatments. Even when the aging puzzle is solved, perhaps we will want our life stories to have run their course somewhere around the 100-year mark.