Living Ever Longer Lives
Would you say that living ever longer lives is a good thing, a bad thing or even something that we should be actively seeking to extend exponentially by combating the ‘disease’ of ageing? I guess the answer to each of these questions depends on a great many factors, including your current state of health and wealth.
You may be unsurprised to learn that in the quest for eternal youth, developments in anti-ageing drugs are currently being bank-rolled by some of the wealthiest people on Earth, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and PayPal founder Peter Thiel. All of which is pie in the sky for you and I because such advances are likely to come far too late to be of benefit to us.
Which brings me back to that basic question: Ever-increasing longevity - good or bad? And the answer is a conundrum because living longer is wonderful for me but may be problematic for the society in which I live.
Last week I went to a conference organised by the International Longevity Centre, a think-tank set up in 1997 to assess the impact of longevity on society. That sentence alone may have already switched you off, but bear with me, because the insights that I gleaned are important and will impact on all of us as we move further into old age accompanied by all the other people born during the population boom after the last world war. As a generation, we boomers are reaping the benefits of improvements in living conditions, access to cheap food and advances in healthcare to the point where, in the last 25 years alone, life expectancy for females has increased by around four years. Having reached 75, I can now expect to live on average for another 10 years. I can also expect more years of healthy and active life. However, and herein lies the biggest challenge for wider society, you and I are ageing at a time when fewer and fewer babies are being born.
An economically viable society has a population shaped as near as possible to a pyramid. In other words, there is a broad base of young, active and well educated young adults who are generating the wealth that the economy needs to be able to provide a decent life to the much smaller number of economically inactive older people who are at the top of the pyramid. Unfortunately, we in the UK, currently have a population shaped, somewhat prophetically, more like a coffin! From a narrow base, the age bands increase towards a wide point (us baby boomers) before gradually tapering off at the top. Clearly, a society with many fewer young people than old will struggle to supply the wealth needed for the much greater demands that those in the final stages of life require, both in terms of money and personnel. And this is an issue throughout all advanced economies, and is particularly acute in Japan and becoming ever more so in China.
So what to do? And I’m warning you, the following options may be unpalatable to you for a number of very good reasons:
1. Increase fertility:
As an economy becomes wealthier, fertility declines as people fear the future much less. Having lots of children you don’t ‘need’ also becomes an increasing drain on your own resources. Women in advanced societies no longer expect to stay at home to care for their children and, if nursery provision is patchy and costly, then having fewer babies shortens the length of time you will need to pay for such services. Some countries with very low birth rates (like France and Italy) have tried to incentivise couples to procreate via tax incentives but with only limited success.
2. Bring more young, able-bodied people into the country via immigration:
This is the quickest way to broaden the base of our coffin-shaped population. However, many think our small island is already full to bursting with its 67 million people and that our education system and the NHS can barely cope as it is. However we are currently witnessing huge problems caused by a dearth of people to fill job vacancies in critical areas like health and social care. We are also in a particular bind post pandemic. Thanks in part to the long term effects of Covid and people unable to get the healthcare they need, the number of ‘long-term sick’ and therefore economically inactive 16-64 year olds has gone up from 2m to 2.5m since 2019.
3. State funded retirement age needs to go up to 70 or even 75:
It becomes ever more obvious that expecting fewer and fewer young people to fund the care of more and more old folk is unsustainable. Part of the solution may have to be that active working lives are extended to reduce the amount of state pension required, and to increase the amount of tax available to care for the very, very old. Any of you WASPI* women will be incensed by mention of this and I have huge sympathy for you. Your treatment was extremely unfair because there was precious little consultation or warning that your state pension would be deferred. The other thing that gets overlooked is the fact that many grandparents supply free child care which enables their own children to work. Not to mention the billions of pounds of value that the older generation provides in the form of voluntary work.
*Women Against State Pension Inequality
My main learnings from the ILC Conference:
1. Life has improved for many in the UK over the past 25 years, but increases in life expectancy may have started to stall for economic reasons.
2. Most advanced economies are struggling with the ‘inverted pyramid’ of an ageing population and low fertility rates.
3. Disparities in both longevity and healthier old age are very marked. People who live in affluent areas may live as much as 16 years longer than those in the most deprived parts of the country.
4. People with higher educational attainment live longer than those with fewer qualifications, mainly because they have higher incomes
5. Lifestyle choices matter. A ‘never smoker’ lives on average 6 years longer than someone who has smoked during their life.
Many of these statistics explain why I, and many of you I suspect, are enjoying our extra years of healthy life. However, it has given me pause for thought about the quality of care that we might all receive when we really need it because there’ll be no-one to provide that care. However, one thing that wasn’t mentioned at the conference was advances in artificial intelligence. Not because I’d be happy to be cared for by a robot, but because machines are quicker and more efficient than humans at certain tasks. I’m more than happy to use the automatic checkouts at my local supermarket which now has one person supervising about 20 payment points. In the future, we may go into a shop, take things from the shelves and then walk out with them because the system knows what we have chosen and has automatically charged us. These developments in AI may release many more people to fill the roles that will always need the personal touch in childcare, education, nursing and social care. And as a society we will also need to ensure that such jobs are properly valued and rewarded because they are providing such vital services.
And what of the billionaires who are determined to double their lifespans? Their money is going into ‘senolytics’ which are drugs designed to cure the diseases of ageing so that the body stays fit and healthy for up to 200 years. Sounds amazing until you realise that it brings us right back to that conundrum that I started with at the beginning: a very long life may be great for me but may be problematic for the society in which I live and even more dangerous for the over-populated planet on which I live. I am enjoying my longer life, but have absolutely no desire to extend it by another 100 years. My only wish is that when the time comes, I can leave this world without becoming an intolerable burden either to my family or the wider society in which I have lived so happily and for so long.
How do you feel about living a very long life or even of extending your life by another 50 to 100 years? Is this something you think we should aspire to? As always, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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