Well Being

A Super-Elderly World

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People are not having enough babies in Japan and Singapore. That's why their populations are aging, making it increasingly difficult for the young to support the old. In the future, however, genetic engineering to prolong our life beyond the current average of 77 years may be why there are more elderly than young adults. And as always, it's the rich and powerful who will be able to afford the genetic enhancements needed to live past a century.

Setting aside current societal problems of supporting an elderly population, let's assume that genetically enhanced super-elderly won't need much help from the rest of us. They'll be rich and have access to whatever medical treatments they need to live a comfortable life. Still, Charles C. Mann in the May 2005 issue of The Atlantic suggests that a death shortage will wreak havoc on social order.

What could happen in a world dominated by the very old and very rich?

1. A growing gap between the haves and have-nots and resulting social unrest.

2. No orderly transition from youth to adulthood, which has traditionally been “education, entry into the labor force, marriage, and parenthood.”

3. No boundaries on acceptable behavior. Leon Kass, the chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, says that it will be a culture of “protracted youthfulness, hedonism, and sexual license.”

4. The super-elderly will probably continue to work and occupy positions of power, thus blocking the door for the young. Economist Kenneth Boulding wrote, “It is the propensity of the old, rich, and powerful to die that gives the young, poor, and powerless hope.”

5. Higher rates of divorce. Faced with the possibility of being with the same person for more than 50 years may prove to be too much for some people.

6. Lower birth rates. Being able to live longer means that people can postpone childbearing even later, which will then add to the difficulty of having children at all.

7. An age gap between poorer countries and richer ones. The citizens of the poorer countries will not be able to afford genetic enhancement and will therefore be younger. Younger citizens foment change and progress and their countries will benefit.

8. Dictators will live longer and cause more suffering for the people they control and whose access to genetic enhancement they will prevent.

9. Older people are naturally slower than younger people which could mean massive economic slowdowns. This could lead to an interesting situation in which the youthful and ambitious will go to poorer countries where they have more opportunities.

So, if you think that living forever is a good idea, think again. The world you inherit as a super-elderly may not be your oyster.

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