TCS Daily

Live Long -- and Prosper?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Last week, I wrote about research to extend human lives, and about some people's objections to that sort of research. I want to continue that topic, in a slightly different vein, this week.

Though some enthusiasts talk about conquering the aging process to the point that words like "immortality" get bandied about, we're not likely to see human immortality any time soon. (And even if human bodies were free from the vicissitudes of aging, the result wouldn't really be immortality, as deaths from accident, violence, and non-age-related ailments would still claim everyone, sooner or later).

Short of immortality, though, it wouldn't be surprising to see people's healthy lifespans extended well past the century mark. A doubling of the biblical threescore-and-ten is certainly not beyond reason. But would such an accomplishment be a blessing, or a curse, from society's standpoint?

One argument is that it would be a curse. In a way, death and upward mobility go hand in hand. Some professions recognize this openly: Junior officers in the military used to toast "a bloody war, or a sickly season" as enhancing their prospects for promotion, while in academia one hears the old chestnut, "science advances funeral by funeral."

With that in mind, perhaps a dramatic lengthening of lifespans would yield stagnation and resentment. Older people would entrench themselves in their positions, while juniors would fester with no real hope of getting ahead. Progress would dry up as creative minds wasted their best years in uncreative apprenticeships, under the sour scrutiny of their elders. The result: a dull, uncreative gerontocracy.

On the other hand, we've pretty much done that experiment already, and it hasn't worked out that way. Lifespans, after all, have been getting steadily longer since the turn of the twentieth century. According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Since 1900, the average lifespan of persons in the United States has lengthened by greater than 30 years." That's an average, of course, and it's made more striking by reductions in death among juveniles. Nonetheless, there are a lot more old people than there used to be, and they're working longer. Indeed, as Discover magazine recently observed, "A century ago, most Americans lived to be about 50. Today people over 100 make up the fastest-growing segment of the population." You can argue about the details, but it's clear that typical adults are living longer than at any time in human history.

But at the same time that lives have been lengthening, the past hundred years have also been the most creative and dynamic period in human history. And it certainly doesn't appear that our institutions are controlled by a rigid gerontocracy. (In fact, one finds rigid gerontocracies mostly in communist countries -- the former Soviet Union, the current People's Republic of China -- and not in capitalist democracies. So if fear of gerontocracy is behind opposition to longer lives, it would be better expressed in terms of opposition to communism than opposition to aging research.)

Looking at how things have worked out in American society, I'm not too worried. The tendency in America seems to be toward more turnover, not less, in major institutions, even as lifespans grow. CEOs don't last nearly as long as they did a few decades ago. University presidents (as my own institution can attest) also seem to have much shorter tenures. Second and third careers (often following voluntary or involuntary early retirements) are common now. As a professor, I see an increasing number of older students entering law school for a variety of reasons. And we've seen all of this in spite of the abolition of mandatory retirement ages by statute over a decade ago. It's more dynamism, not less.

Of course, that may not be true everywhere. In societies that are already stagnant, like the Egypt of the Pharaohs, or the Central Committee of Leonid Brezhnev's time, death is the main source of dynamism, and the young (and middle-aged) often do wind up in sour apprenticeships waiting for their elders to die. In capitalist democracies, other forces play a far greater role. So it seems to me that we have little to fear from extending human lifespans in our own society. And to the extent that lifespan-extension robs dictatorships of what little dynamism they possess, it probably makes them less dangerous, too.

One might object to longer lifespans on other grounds -- perhaps Leon Kass's argument that death is a "blessing," and that the finitude of life is what inspires us to achieve great and daring things. And maybe that's true (though the young are famously unreflective of death, and yet also the ones most likely to attempt great and daring things). Kass also wonders whether extending life "only twenty years" would lead to more enjoyment: "If the human life span were increased even by only twenty years, would the pleasures of life increase proportionately? Would professional tennis players really enjoy playing 25 percent more games of tennis?"

I think that we've done that experiment already, extending life by more than twenty years over the course of the past century, and that the answer is pretty clear: A longer and healthier life is better. How surprising is that, really?

But such objections are, at root, aesthetic, and as a result are neither answerable nor particularly persuasive. But regardless of aesthetics, I think that the fear that longer lives will lead to more rigidity and less creativity is unlikely to come true, at least so long as we continue to embrace democratic capitalism.

And if we stop embracing democratic capitalism, we're likely to see both gerontocracy and death aplenty. At least, that's how it's worked out before. So perhaps progress and death don't really go together at all.


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