There are always those who try to argue that increasing human healthy life span would be an economic disaster. I would have thought this a hard view to justify to oneself given centuries of economic growth walking hand in hand with greater life expectancy, but many people prioritize the present unsustainable structure of economic entitlements in Western societies more highly than any number of lost and crippled lives. In their eyes the machine must continue exactly as it is, regardless of the deaths and suffering that pays for it. This is the small-c conservative impulse at work, the tendency for people to support and defend the present status quo, no matter how ridiculous it might be, and no matter how or when it came into being. But the world will change in response to new capabilities in medicine, and political and economic systems that cannot possibly work will fall. They are far less important than better and longer lives for ordinary people.
Change is not disaster. It is progress. Why receive entitlements if you are old but not frail? Why retire if you don't have to? Why think of someone in their 60s and 70s as less capable than someone in their 30s when that is no longer the case? The purpose of research into extended longevity is to prevent the frailty and illness that stops people from being able to support themselves. Entitlements and forced wealth transfers have no place in that near future world, regardless of what you might think of them today.
Most of us think of longevity as a gift, a blessing, a sign of social progress. Gordon Woo thinks of it as a catastrophe. Woo is one of the world's best-respected "catastrophists," and helps insurers and reinsurers calculate the likelihood of disastrous earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, terrorist attacks, financial crises, and other hazards. Woo's major preoccupation these days is the risks posed by people living longer. Unlike some futurists, Woo does not believe the aging of the population is going to plateau any time soon - not in an era when you'll be able to replace more of your spare parts and take the drugs that work best for your personal genome. And that could have huge implications in the coming decades, as civilizations struggle to meet the medical and financial needs of their elders.
MG: Can you explain why longevity is bad?
GW: We're focusing on the pension retirement sector, and it's really underfunded in terms of its provision for increasing lifespan in the decades ahead. One reason is that when it comes to making provisions for longevity instead of ecological or geological catastrophes, regulators tend to be fairly light of touch. There's good reason for this. If a corporation seems to have a black hole in its pension fund, it may not be a good policy to force the corporation to pump more money into the fund while it's going through hard times, because that very act could draw the corporation into insolvency. That's why regulators, even if they spot the problem with the pension fund, are often reluctant to force measures to remedy the situation. Often the thinking is, times will get better, corporations will get out of trouble, hopefully everything will be rosy in the future. But that will not be the case.
MG: How much longer are people living? Is this trend going to accelerate going forward?
GW: There is one view within the actuarial community that it might be leveling out - medical discovery is plateauing, it's getting harder to discover new drugs, there are diminishing returns, that kind of thing. But that perspective doesn't allow for the expansion of research into whole new territories such as regenerative medicine and anti-aging.