There are Always Those Who Try to Tell Us that Greater Longevity Will Be a Disaster

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.



Someone who worries about the financial implications of people not dying seems to have his priorities confused.

To be fair, though, he never actually implies that it's undesirable; he just says that people aren't prepared for it. But he never comes out and makes the cognitive leap that retirement, as a concept, is eventually just going to go away.

I kind of do feel sorry for the companies on the hook for indefinite pensions, though, but there'll eventually be "it's not forever" legislation that caps them to age 120 or so. Or the companies offering them will just go bankrupt. It's not like their owners won't have time to make new ones.

Social Security retirement will, itself, be retired early on once people start walking out of government-sponsored clinics with new organs and fresh brain cells.

Posted by: Slicer at July 15th, 2015 9:04 AM

This is a perfect example of why I fear that something that will slow or reverse aging will be banned or at least very restricted here. People tend to be afraid of change, and usually can't look past their own nose... only worried about collecting their share of the pension and nothing else. Look at some government jobs that allow you to retire after 25 years... you could start at 20, and be done at 45, collecting pension thereafter. It's entirely possible that you can collect a pension from some jobs for more years than you worked. It's kind of crazy, but no one wants to talk about that issue. Much like the idea of "working for a living" is something made up by society, so is the idea of retirement, but just about everyone views that as something they expect to be able to do, and they tend to get hostile at the thought of having to continue to work. I make no illusions that I'll be able to retire at 62, be able to collect social security, or that I'm entitled to anything... which is why I go out of my way now to save as much money as I can.

Like they said in the article, 40 years from now longevity is going to cause some stresses because people won't be able to get by on what they saved... So does that mean we shouldn't work on aging because some people don't save enough? I just get a really bad feeling when this gets talked about, because there are no shortage of people with the mindset of "I don't have enough money to live longer in retirement, so why should anyone else be able to" when it comes to longevity and lasting money/pensions, and I think it could cause some issues down the line... Issues that I see resulting in a fair amount of medical tourism or things potentially done in biohacking labs.

I'm not sure what Gordon Woo's endgame is as far as longevity being good or bad though. Outside of his view on it for the pension system at least. I will say, it always amazes me when other people have the idea that basically everyone needs to "die on time" to avoid interrupting the status quo.

Posted by: Ham at July 15th, 2015 9:17 AM

I am surprised that no one talks about robots that WILL impact most jobs within 20 years or so. So, it won't matter if someone is concerned about their pension or whatever. As robots become more sophisticated and I assume, not overly expensive, there will be a paradigm in the work environment.

I just read an article about a robot in Japan that will be sold for about $1500 for consumers in Japan later this year that enables a regular conversation.

So, just imagine robots in 20 years, both industrial and personal. Governments will need to figure out how people will have credits to purchase things because although companies will have more robots than people, they do need someone to pay for their products and not just the 1%.

I would like to think it could evolve to a Star Trek economy/commerce society.

Posted by: Robert Church at July 15th, 2015 12:44 PM


I think some people DO talk about robots that will impact jobs and the workplace... just not as many as there should be. The responses I see to robots taking over are usually "Ok, good, so now we'll have a ton of people not contributing to society that need to be supported" or that "Robots and automation will take some jobs, but create more". I've heard the idea that people will be free to work on whatever makes them happy, but we'll see how this turns out... at least initially. The workforce is going to change for sure... but the way society views money will need to change as well for things like basic income and the government supporting the bulk of the population. People also think 3D printing can be a very disruptive technology, especially if people aren't making that much money.

Posted by: Ham at July 15th, 2015 1:10 PM

@Slicer : Yes, retirement will go away. Together with jobs as we know them.

Robert Church : Basic Income + decreased living costs thanks to robotisation means buying things won't be more problematic than today.

Posted by: Nico at July 15th, 2015 4:51 PM

Mankind will do what it always does, it will adapt to the changes. Worrying about pensions and the like is a foolish reason not to develop the technology. I could not give a rip about the status quo but I do care about health and life for people. Those who do not want the therapy can opt out anytime they like so this entire article is pure drivel and people like this must not be allowed to interfere and hold back progress.

Posted by: Steve H at July 16th, 2015 4:59 AM


You're right, these people shouldn't be allowed to hold back progress. The problem is, people with our view are in the vast minority, and are seen as selfish and greedy for wanting to live longer, while people who speak against it are speaking out to maintain the status quo for the general population. We should just die on time so people can continue to collect their entitlements uninterrupted, and without any change to the system. It's easy to say that someone else should die at a certain age and time, but I say to hell with everyone who shares that view. You only get one life, so you do what you can to hang onto it, at least in my opinion.

Nothing will ever be as simple as giving people the option to use longevity technology if they want it, and to be able to opt out if desired. People will still simply oppose others having the choice, just because they don't want it for themselves. You're right though. Mankind will adapt to whatever happens... That's kind of our thing, along with defying what's "natural". But for everyone who shares this sentiment, there's someone who will vehemently oppose it in the name of keeping the status quo, or continuing what we're used to. People fear change.

Posted by: Ham at July 16th, 2015 7:45 AM

The tide is turning I feel but yes you are right to be concerned. We shall have to fight harder than them and make sure it happens then. Challenge accepted :)

Posted by: Steve H at July 16th, 2015 10:52 AM

By reading the comments section on nearly every aging article, you'd never be able to tell that the tide is turning though. Granted, a lot of the time the articles are on regular sites like washingtonpost, dailymail, etc, but most of the general population doesn't seem too interested... only concerned about their entitlements, having to work forever, or overpopulation. Maybe when something that is shown to work in humans gets demonstrated people will come around more?

Posted by: Ham at July 16th, 2015 11:28 AM

It's not directly related to this article, but here's something I found from a USC researcher.

They talk about immortality which is a term I don't like, but they also mention living 100s of years. It's the last paragraph, and the guy basically talks about how the finiteness is what drives people to do things, and what gives life meaning etc. This is another attitude that many people seem to have, that will be difficult to change. People are constantly looking for meaning in life and this is one of the ways they justify it.

Posted by: Ham at July 17th, 2015 10:36 AM

I don't know where to start here, there are so many places where those who worry about pensions and other entitlements display only a limited and emotional grasp of the subject of people living longer - "Oh my God, will my money be there if everybody begins living longer, what will I do?"

Well, for one thing, aging creep has been happening for a long time, and will continue - in other words, this forward movement in years-lived is inevitable. The only question is the rate of acceleration. That it's already here is not even up for debate. Pensions, Social Security, and all the other instruments that support those too old and feeble to work will simply have to adjust.

This adjustment is already going on as well. Look at Detroit, Chicago, several cities in California. This reckoning will be painful and politically difficult, but is itself inevitable. So age creep, grudging adjustments, and political foot dragging are all going on right now. It's just happening so slow that we don't recognize that it really is a life extension trend instead of the bump and grind of competing social entities.

This ongoing process will probably not reach catastrophic proportions, but might get painful at times.

What is catastrophic, is the creeping, inexorable loss of hundreds of millions of human lives with the skills, knowledge, and experience that only life lived on earth can provide. The cost of this ongoing loss is incalculable, socially debilitating, and to a significant extent, irreplaceable at any cost. It is aging itself that causes this, yet the acceptance of this self-defeating process goes on with little investment from the public sector, and little credit from people like Woo who sell their expertise, but really don't see the tendency of societies to adjust - willingly or otherwise.

Look at human history, societies rise and fall, but the human race adjusts. How much more stable would societies be, and how less painful would adjustments be, if people simply lived longer with less disease bedeviling them to the point where they cease to function?

In the scope of humanity, problems with pensions and Social Security are small adjustments. It is time for perspective and the recognition that longevity is the most important step we, as a society can pursue towards economic progress and peace.

PS: On over-population - Economic wellbeing and low birth rates trend together as do poverty and high birth rates. It is unlikely that increased longevity and its corresponding prosperity would inspire higher birth rates (probably the opposite).

Posted by: John White at July 21st, 2015 2:31 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.