Increasing Lifespan: Effect on Society?

I’ve been reading the book Lifespan by Harvard geneticist David A. Sinclair. It’s a fascinating book about what we know about the biology of aging and epigenetics. Although I disagree with some of the conclusions, the book is reasonably evidence based and the topic important to many.

Sinclair gives an extremely optimistic view of the potential benefits to society were interventions found that would allow most people to live 120 years instead of 80 or less. He does acknowledge and discuss dissenting views. This is the subject of this thread: what would be the political, social, economic and other effects if assumed most people could live until the age of 120?

In the book, he discusses employment, Social Security, ageism, overpopulation, cost of medical care, Old age homes, quality of life, various diseases and current paradigms of medical treatment.

A LOT depends on how this works.

If we do some genetic alteration of a few fat cats’ children that lets those kids plan on a 120 year average lifespan and over the next 50 years most of the upper middle- or middle- class in most of the rich counties get the treatment for their offspring the changes will be gradual enough, both in time and in percentage of the populace, to be accomodated.

If conversely, we discover some way to halt the aging of current 60 or 70 yos for another 50 years and we suddenly deploy it population wide, the consequences will be massive and very hard to manage.

We can model some of this by looking at the current FIRE movement. Which is about compressing earning into a much smaller fraction of one’s life and having a much longer retirement phase of life. Right now it is going on for some very small fraction of the populace. But as practiced, it clearly doesn’t scale to most people, much less all people.

A lot does depend on the specifics, as in any speculative thought experiment. For the purpose of this discussion, the assumption options are:

  • the increase in likely age to about 120 applies to most people regardless of income or background
  • most of these years are in a state of reasonably good health

Life span pretty much doesn’t change. Life expectancy changes.

Life expectancy in the US has been going up, slowly. Not anymore.

This is a thought experiment. Life expectancy and average lifespan previously increased due to things like vaccinations, sanitation, safety laws, jaw-jaw and clean food and water treatments/availability. This thread makes the assumption an unnamed innovation does broadly increase life span, life expectancy and health span. It asks for how this might effect Social Security or any other social issue.

Does the portion of lifespan during which one is fertile change?

Let’s assume it does not.

Employment would be a substantial issue.

If people are living ~40 more years than they do now, and are remaining fairly healthy (and, thus, able to work) for much of those extra 40 years, they’re likely to be working for much longer than they do now, for a couple of reasons:

  • While many people will still be happy to retire at around 65, feeling that they’re done with their working life, many others will be bored with retirement, and will want to stay in the work force for a few additional decades, before finally retiring at, say, 85 or 90, and still enjoying three decades of retirement.
  • Many people don’t save enough for retirement as it is, and unless you’ve saved a lot for retirement from ages 20-65, or Social Security is completely overhauled, most people won’t be able to afford to retire at 65, even if they want to, and thus, they’ll have to work longer.
  • At the same time, we may start to see more jobs be replaced by technology – the number of jobs available for drivers (truck drivers, taxi drivers, etc.), as one example, may decline dramatically in the years to come, as automated vehicles become widespread.

tl;dr: people potentially working for decades longer, plus fewer jobs in some industries, could lead to widespread unemployment.

Then it would make sense to separate out the childbearing years from the years of doing other work. That is, I don’t know whether we would actually do that, if starting from here; but if I were building a society in my head given those constraints, I’d have people have a childhood till they were about twenty or so, then have children and care for them until they were around forty or so; after which, if they’re going to be healthy until they’re 120, they could still have say 60 years of doing other work followed by 20 years of retirement.

Employment is going to become a major issue anyway; the automation of skilled intellectual labor in the coming decades is going to result in the contraction of employment in traditionally stable white collar fields such as business, law, finance, et cetera, even beyond the obvious losses in menial labor. I think the assumption going in should be that productivity in terms of direct economic contribution of labor will not be the primary consideration as it is today. The problem of increasing lifespan (the maximum length of time humans can potentially live, which has not increased significantly) and life expectancy (the statistical average of actual lifetime, which increases with improvements in health care and nutrition) is dependent on how productive and functional those advanced years are from a knowledge transfer and experience standpoint.

One of the problems of increasing life expectancy is that many of those later years have a vastly increased medical and economic burden as people start to suffer from chronic illness, physical infirmity, and cognitive degradation. This, combined with reductions in birthrate or mortality, results in fewer people to support an older population both economically and providing the actual care needed, which is a problem being faced by nations with top heavy elder populations such as Italy and Japan. The older population could theoretically provide the benefit of their knowledge and experience but this is often not the case in a society that has technologically and sociologically moved beyond their experiences and inculcated prejudices as well as the loss of neural plasticity which makes older people less able to embrace new ideas and experiences. In short, there is little practical societal benefit to extending life expectancy unless we can also make a corresponding extension of quality of life. Fortunately, there is considerable evidence of how to do this via lifestyle changes, e.g. exercise, diet, avoiding deleterious habits that cause chronic illness, et cetera. Getting people to adopt these lifestyle changes is a challenging sociological and public health problem but as a theoretical matter we could readily extend productive life beyond 80 for the majority of the population.

An increase in absolute lifespan would require massive genetic and epigenetic modifications, particularly in neurological progression due to the ‘genetic clock’ of neural aging. Even if we could contrive to revitalize or replace aging body tissues, figuring out how to reverse this ‘genetic brain clock’ would probably require some radical gene editing and controlling epigenetic expression with consequences we could only guess at. The practical effects of increasing lifespan with a greater productive period and the ability to arrest age-related neural degradation may well mean a greater retention of knowledge and experience, as well as longer careers (for those doing productive creative and practical work such as scientific research, medicine, the arts, et cetera) assuming some mentorship and interaction between younger and older generations, but Western society has resulting in pretty significant striations between generations.

The ethical merits of increasing lifespan are unclear; we’d all like loved ones and those we revere to live indefinitely, but to what ultimate end? Western society in particular has increasingly viewed mortality as something to be fought off and defeated by any means necessary, often to the detriment of quality of life for the individual, but if that quality of life could be assured, we would end up with a society dominated by people whose formative experiences are rooted in many decades or even centuries in the past? The fundamental changes in society often come from the radicalization of youth in rebelling against social strictures and the acceptance of “things as they have always been”, only to be replaced by the next generation of malcontents. Imagine it, for instance, the generation of physicists rooted in 19th century classical views had not given way to Max Born, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli, and their successors, or if the figures responsible for the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were able to maintain their positions indefinitely. There is much to be said for the optimism and defiance of youth being gradually tempered into the alloy of social and scientific dogma, and a society that continued to be dominated by elder statesmen could be expected to be moribund and reject new ideas and knowledge.

In short, I don’t think we can make any definitive conclusions regarding the effects of increasing lifespan on society, but we should be cautious about assuming it to be a net positive even if there are particular benefits in terms of retaining detailed knowledge and having the continued relationships with loved ones.


That helps. Relative to total years lived there is a compression of morbidity, many more disability free years of life.

The next step is to speculate if people have the same or fewer children. I’d guess fewer and to some degree it’s more than a guess. Demographics that live longest typically have fewer kids. Although that could be “reverse causation”: higher education correlated with both.

Still I’d extrapolate from what we’ve already seen, inclusive of a delay of full adulthood onset. More taking their times to settle into a career path with more frequent reinventing of adult identities. Starting families later and stopping sooner.

One way to think of it is that each phase of life will mostly continue to occupy the same fraction of expected lifetime. 90 becomes the new 60 and many work past 100. Social security eligibility age of course increases. Again something that has precedence both recently and over longer evolutionary time lines.

Given that the increase is of good health years demands of medical costs not necessarily increased. Of course that depends on details of “relatively good health” - that could include chronic diseases that cost to manage well.

Of course if on average the same, let alone more children per capita, then managing larger populations becomes the issue. Greater density living and a need for advances in getting more out of our resources else the hypothetical breaks down as only the wealthy (individuals and nations) have enough to live long.

The book is an optimistic but not at all implausible theory that “aging is a disease” which can be improved, more so if we understood the biology better - that people do not die of old age by itself, that there are a few organisms that don’t seem to, that some interventions already extend life in some fungi and animals; that improving longevity is much better than curing any specific type of disease, that transplanted old cells behave like younger ones. I found it quite interesting, fairly evidence based and not nearly as pie-in-the-sky as one might suspect.

A very few people have lived to 115+, such as Jean Clement, so the book hypothesizes a lifespan of 120 years is not impossible. Life expectancy is different, of course, but is 120 years for the purpose of this thread. Since increasing expectancy without increasing healthspan may just produce more difficult years, here we assume better healthspan through better self-care, regular exercise, social support, social pressures, sensible alcohol use, avoiding smoking and obesity, better preventive medicine and more effective personalized medicine, even at the genetic and epigenetic level.

But this thread is about the consequences of these assumptions. With increasing automation coming anyway, will more workers mean more job creation or is the pie only so large? Not all elderly would want to work. Would this increase population a lot? Is this a problem, or is high consumption more problematic? How would this affect pollution? How would Social Security have to change? If housing is currently unaffordable for new families, what changes would be needed? How would people feel about these changes?

Speaking as one who ought to have retired, but is still working: living to 120 is only worthwhile if you are in good health. Few people make the century without being bedridden or mentally vacuous or both, but let us assume that this becomes medically possible. The next question: old age for everybody, or just the fat cats who can afford the new super-medicine? If we are democratic and everybody can have an enhanced lifespan, there is still the little problem that some people don’t get that old anyway, and generally it’s a family thing, aka genetics. So maybe our “Methuselah for all” system has to include genetic engineering, which is potentially a Pandora’s box on a huge scale.

So we all live longer and stay healthy longer, except for the self-destructive who ingest various substances that are fun but are not recommended for longevity. Now what?

The pension system, already overloaded, will have to be redesigned. We would be talking of people working until - until what? 85? 90? When retirement is measured in decades, you either need to save a lot in the first half of your life or the social security deductions skyrocket. This assumes of course that work is available, and the question is whether these oldies can do anything physical. Even to the extent of geriatric nursing, which many a person had to give up due to putting their back out, a lot of heavy lifting is required.

The extra life experience means that our super-oldies can offer a lot in fields such as teaching and counseling, and if they have saved some money in earlier years, they can do this sort of thing for low pay or none at all, maybe just to pass the time. And will that be the biggest problem? Somebody commented to me once that many pensioners spend their life going from meal to meal, punctuated by watching easy-watching programs on TV. You want 40 years of that?

Given that many jobs are automated away, what will these people do? Will they have work to pay for their extended retirement? Or will it be up to half a century of dreary poverty, maybe watching TV all day in a prison-like room in some built-to-a-price" subsidized housing apartment block? That would be enough to drive you to suicide, and curiously, suicide might well become a leading cause of death.That includes euthanasia and assisted suicide as well. Shoukd it be allowed when enough is enough, and nature won’t oblige for an interminably long time?

A big obstacle to a long life is the fact that the cells of the body tends to develop
faults when they reproduce themselves repeatealy, as they do over the course of our life, and the Big C is going to be a Big Problem. Cancer is already a major killer, because we are living longer.

That is the social side. What about politics? It could be interesting, as people have long memories and any politician would be constantly reminded of his past by an unkind electorate. Perhaps to the extent of “you’re just like your father / mother, and he / she was bad enough.” But while voters would know more of a politician’s history, it is does not follow that their voting patterns will avoid the election into office of totally unsuitable people. Older people can be very prejudiced - yes, I see a lot of that, and there is the fact that Trump, Hitler and Brexit got above-average levels of support from the wrinklies. Would an aging population be an intensely conservative population rooted in the status quo?

Wold an older population also be more concerned about the environment? If you have to live with the messes you made, longer than before, would you be more careful? And another issue; would you be more inclined to plant trees if you knew that you would live long enough to see them grow tall?

But, given the chance to live to 120 in good health, I would be all for it if I could be sure of a pension that is adequate to live on. Boredom? No problem, I have plenty to do, and can find more to occupy my mind.

Check out post 3 for the hypothetical maybe? To wit: “regardless of income or background … most of these years are in a state of reasonably good health.”

The same question for everyone whose jobs have been automated away, yes? No a priori reason that it impacts them with their experience more than a youngun.

Facts not in evidence for that “long memories” claim. We “remember” what the news cycle reminds us of for as long as it is of interest and no recall.

An increase in the healthy adult years would be a major economic boon. Right now the average developed-country human spends ~20 years being cared for as a child, has ~40 years of useful economic productivity, then spends ~15 years in retirement. If we lived an extra few decades with capable bodies and minds, we’d get a lot more work done as a society. And the returns would be more than linear because people get better at stuff the longer they do it.

The idea that increased lifespan would lead to lots of unemployment is silly. We didn’t get unemployment as the global population increased by orders of magnitude because there’s lots of work to be done and humans are both the supply and demand side of the labor market. Technological increases in other areas may lead to unemployment as fewer humans can do useful work, but that’s mostly orthogonal to the issue of increased lifespan.

I expect society as a whole would become more risk averse. It’s even more important to look both ways before you cross the street and wear that helmet when you have that many more years to lose.

Would be interesting to see what kind of social changes would happen. I think that family bonds would become even stronger and more important when many families regularly had 5-6 generations coexisting.

One of the many interesting observations the book makes is that curing all cases of one widespread problem may matter less than one thinks, at least in terms of mortality. For example, the book discusses the author’s mother being diagnosed with lung cancer. Smoking increases the chance of lung cancer by perhaps five times, over certain ages and pack-year amounts. Aging also increases the risk of cancer: if you are 50, your risk might be a hundred times higher than someone in their 20s for most types. If you are 80, this risk might be 1000 times higher. Cardiovascular disease, stroke or other major problems follow similar exponential incidence vs. age. People do not die from being old, but their chance of having a major condition increases a lot.

Accordingly, say you took a magic wand and cured all known cases of heart disease. Poof! How much would this increase life expectancy? One study says about two years. There are too many other possible conditions one might acquire. If instead, one took your magic wand and all cases of cancer disappeared - again, longevity might only increase an average of two years - even less.

Fascinating. Is it true? I’m inclined to believe these numbers are not far off.

I agree there would need to be major economic adjustments - larger than those that will need to be made anyway due to technological progress. Some old’uns would want to work. If you teach instead of carry heavy things, you might be more inclined. Lifelong learning, new skills acquisition, oldies back to school would have to be more of a thing. Using people well would require a great deal of innovation. Keeping the environment reasonable would mean reigning in consumption.

Or more families will come apart because people who would have bitten their tongues when they expected that Granddad would be gone soon won’t be able to keep that up for an extra forty years.

Yeah, could be. Although that sounds like a short-term effect as things change, not a long-term one. It’s not like people would be expecting Grandpa to kick off at 80 if 80 was basically middle-age.

This is true, but it doesn’t account for true sea-change technology advances.

It’s like arguing in the 18th century that we’ll never be able to travel faster than 50mph because, sure, you can breed horses with longer legs, but that only gets you so much because then their bones won’t be strong enough, and if you make their bones stronger they’ll be too heavy, etc.

I mean, they kinda do. Getting old makes all our body systems break down and stop working very well, and eventually one of them stops working so badly that the whole body fails. We have names for all the different ways that it fails, but a whole bunch of them might basically have the same root cause.

Yes, that was my point.