Humans will soon have an average life span of 125 to 150 years, says Michael Zey. This will have profound implications for education, careers and marriages
What has been dubbed the superlongevity revolution – the continuing and rapid extension of the human life span – is a landmark process in human history that promises to transform our culture, society, and economy.
It is hard for us to grasp the fact that as recently as 1900 average life expectancy, even in the most advanced countries, was about 45 years. Thanks to the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics, improvements in public health, and early victories against heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, between 1900 and 2000 average life expectancy soared. For instance, the life expectancy of American males is now 75 years and American females can expect to see 80. Japanese women live 85 years on average. The number of centenarians is increasing worldwide. In Japan alone the number of people aged over 100 jumped from 540 in 1975 to 26,000 in 2005.
This superlongevity revolution is expected to accelerate throughout the 21st century as genetic engineering, cloning, tissue regeneration, stem cell research and nanotechnology combine to push the average life span well beyond 125 years.
Genetic engineering alone could eradicate a host of debilitating and life-threatening conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis, and eventually many of the deadliest cancers. The fact that the human genome project decoded the human genetic code so quickly will accelerate this process.
Stem-cell technology will also help eliminate disease and extend human life, perhaps indefinitely. Scientists plan to use stem cells, the body’s basic engines of growth, to regenerate muscle in damaged hearts, restore failing livers and repair injured spinal nerves. In 2005, Kyoto University scientists used stem cells to reverse Parkinson’s disease in monkeys. Researchers have used stem cells to successfully treat patients with multiple sclerosis, heart damage and spinal cord injuries, and hope that they can next combat breast cancer, leukaemia and sickle-cell anaemia using this breakthrough technique.
Many new medical technologies will not only help individuals live to these great ages but to do so in good health.
One such technology is caloric reduction. Recent experiments have shown that animals – mice, dogs and rats, as well as rhesus monkeys – on radically-reduced caloric intake live 30% to 40% longer than their expected life span. Such extreme adjustments in diet and food intake could extend human life to 150 years or more. Animals in such experiments also escape age-linked maladies, and are more physically active, even later in life, than control groups on normal diets. Their memory is still sharp in later years and they retain their ability to learn. They look and act like younger animals throughout their lives, and have fewer systemic diseases.
Scientists and pharmaceutical companies such as Boston-based Biomarker Pharma are working actively on new drugs that would mimic the effects of calorie-restricted diets. By merely taking a pill a person could live to 125 to 150 years, feeling youthful and with little or no infirmity at life’s end.
Working in another direction, Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, California, has located the “immortality gene” implicated in the human ageing process. They hope to develop therapies and treatments to control and manipulate the gene and thereby stop ageing. Geron is an integral player in the nascent immortality industry, which also includes such companies as Elixir Pharmaceuticals, a specialist in genetic engineering; Advanced Cell Technology, which focuses on cell repair and regeneration; Infogen, which specializes in human cloning; and Alcor, whose expertise is in cryogenics.
Researchers at Southern Illinois University extended the life of a so-called Methuselah Mouse by genetically engineering it to not respond to a growth hormone.
Another approach, nanotechnology, could, when perfected, extend human life to “near-immortality” by enabling us to reconstruct damaged organs – limbs, eyes and bones – quite effortlessly from the bottom up, one atom at a time.
Work, education and marriage
Over the past few decades, society has struggled to adjust to the rapid increase in human life expectancy that has already taken place. As we extend the life span to 125 years and beyond, we can expect superlongevity to alter many of the old rules and norms governing how people pursue their lives.
Work patterns will most certainly change. People expecting a career spanning nine or 10 decades might choose to pursue schooling, career, a career hiatus or sabbatical of a year or more, re-schooling, re-careering, retirement,
re-schooling and so on in sequences varying greatly from person to person.
Armies of 50- and 60-year-olds will re-enter universities to acquire the certification and/or degrees required for their next professions. Or they might be seeking to upgrade their skills in their current jobs. Certainly, our increasingly complex jobs and careers will require us to be smarter, more intellectually agile and more mentally flexible.
Retirement will change as well. People expecting very long lives will not use the period after their first career exclusively for leisure, as many do today, but will pursue new interests, vocations and careers. Surveys reveal that today’s older baby boomers intend to create their own “post-retirement” lifestyles that combine leisure and entrepreneurial pursuits.
In this new era, healthy and vibrant citizens of all ages will productively contribute to the society in which they live. People who work and change careers into their sixties, seventies and eighties will continue to pay into the money pool that underwrites social safety nets such as America’s Social Security and Medicare programmes, as well as various government and corporate training schemes.
People in their nineties and beyond might create unique entrepreneurial entities that I label “wisdom companies”, consulting and training organizations through which “seasoned citizens” will not only transfer skill-based knowledge but also impart their “perspective” and outlook.
Superlongevity will affect marriage and childbearing as well. Will men and women expecting to live to 125 or longer postpone having children early in life to pursue the training and education needed to ensure career success? Or, will superlongevity induce people to decide to become parents relatively early in life? Perhaps people will find it easier to pursue their careers, obtain a college degree through distance learning, and raise a family simultaneously.
Genetic science will enable parents to become active agents in furthering the superlongevity revolution. In a matter of decades, even years, we will be able to create “designer children” by simply slipping specific genes into human embryos.
Children could be engineered for resistance to a variety of maladies, including cancer, heart disease, AIDS and mental illness. Such children will live longer and be stronger, healthier and more intelligent than any before them.
Superlongevity could also lead to the legitimization of serial marriages. When the life span exceeds 125, our expectation about living with the same person for a century or more might change. We might develop a middle-ground approach to marriage, in which spouses might take a year or two out to pursue their individual interests.
The extended family
The extended family might even make a comeback. In this emerging era it is likely that six to eight generations of one family will be alive at the same time. With the help of such next-step technologies as high-speed rail and virtual reality, families will be able to maintain multigenerational households and/or communities in which all members can easily and frequently physically interact with each other. As a result, the young will have a more distinct sense of the richness of their past and the older members will possess a stronger connection to the future.
Individuals and institutions must prepare for this demographic tsunami. Society must adopt a new ethos that considers people of all ages as a “value-added” component of the economy and society as a whole. To conform to this ethos, corporations and government institutions would be advised to discard outmoded employment practices. Instead of offering older workers early retirement, businesses today should consider recruiting and retaining older workers to take advantage of this group’s experience, training, and skill.
Government, with cooperation from the business community, can institute programmes to make it easier for people of all ages to pursue training and take gap years throughout their careers. Primary and secondary schools should begin educating students about the new career, marriage and childbearing alternatives available to them throughout their extended lives as a result of the superlongevity revolution.
Most importantly, individuals must carefully plan their careers, schooling, finances, marriage, childbearing and lifestyle choices over the course of a lifetime that will now stretch for a century or more. Although the future promises a life span of 125 to 150, individuals can already influence how long they live. National Geographic recently reported a study that showed that people could greatly increase their life span, often to well past 100, by merely adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as eating the right foods, reducing stress, and staying active.
Even as society adjusts to the 125-year life span, it will have to begin to prepare for the next stage of this demographic phenomenon, in which scientific advances could make enhanced superlongevity and even near-immortality possible.
A world in which people expect to live for centuries in a state of youthful health is so unlike our own as to be almost unrecognizable. Certainly, the conventional life cycle, as well as our traditional notions of career, marriage and family will be not just modified but totally upended. The eradication of the physical differences between old and young will drastically change the relationship between the generations. Moreover, the achievement of near-immortality would profoundly challenge and ultimately transform our moral, religious and cosmological beliefs.
We can speculate that near-immortals will be strongly motivated to participate in politics to assure a healthy and prosperous future. And we can be encouraged by the fact that living simultaneously with multiple generations of our family might imbue the entire society with a heightened sense of continuity.
The superlongevity revolution is creating for humankind a pathway to the very frontiers of time. It is now our responsibility to tap the infinitely-rich resources awaiting us in this as-yet uncharted territory.
CV Michael Zey
Michael Zey is executive director of the Expansionary Institute, professor of management at Montclair State University, New Jersey, and author of the forthcoming books The Ageless Society and The Future Factor.