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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Thank you Tricia for that very informative blog! Like many have said I would also like to be able to determine when to go. Thinking about the state of social care makes me very anxious indeed although I have family and grandchildren one never knows what's coming down the road. I had a discussion with my husband recently about getting our affairs in order as death is the one thing we can be sure of in life. How to go about it though? Who can help? Have we started? No....... Regards, Elizabeth x
Thank you, Tricia, for this thought provoking blog on such an important topic. I think with the advent of modern medicine longevity was set as the criteria for success, without considering the quality of life of those living longer or the impact this would have on society and, in particular, the younger generation who will have to support us. I'm a fit and healthy 76 year old who still works part time and enjoys life to the full, but I'm super aware that my abilities now are quite different to how I was even ten years ago. This is nature reminding me that life is not forever and giving me time to enjoy as much of my time as I can before I finally head off on my next journey, wherever that might take me. I do not want to linger on in this world to become a burden to myself, my family or society. I have done my living will, filled in every DNR form going and had long conversations with my children about my end of life wishes. I think this is particularly important, as it not only helps prepare them for the inevitable, but it helps take the pressure off nearest and dearest should they be asked to make a life or death decision on our behalf. I believe this is an urgent conversation that needs to be had by everyone at every level.
Tricia: I look forward to your blogs every week. They are always thought-provoking. I've been especially interested of late in your "look to the future" blogs. I read the one about "downsizing" to my husband and it started a really important conversation. Today's says to me, "make the most of every day and be grateful, cherish and nurture your good health while you have it." Thank you, Tricia for your forward thinking.
No desire at all to live an extra 100 years! I think such a lot depends on health/mobility/brain power and those are the things that dear mother Nature takes away from many people - although I think genetics plays a large part. This week there's good news for dementia (or was it Alzheimer's) in that something has been discovered at last to delay symptoms. As for people spending billions on 'anti-ageing', it reminds me of all those people who had their bodies cryogenically frozen which didn't seem to be a very positive move! A person I know has recently had her tenth child. She's been ill ever since and her poor little body is totally out of whack poor thing but she'll always have family to care for her! Not that I'm advocating having quite so many children. But I like your comment about the immigration (which always seems to be 90% men) of younger people. As long as they settle in, learn English and have or acquire the skills, they'll really help the pyramid you mention. As ever, an interesting blog with lots to think about. Happy Christmas everyone and very best wishes for an enjoyable and healthy 2023.
Dear Tricia. Quite a difficult topic, for me today.! I have a 54 year old son, who researches everything and who is extremely interested in the aging process and the ways in which age will eventually take us way beyond our current levels….which he would love! Yes he is a healthy, educated “high earner” and at this time of life wants to live a longer healthy life. I certainly now, would not want to even consider anything beyond the norm. I am 76 now and despite many serious health issues since my 59th birthday, I still work , two days per week. This along with my state pension and small occupational pension, gives me a good standard of living. Take the work out of the equation and my standard would drop significantly….financially and in many other ways too. ( even though I work mainly on MS Teams from home.) No , I want to try and remain , well, safe and active. Being a nurse myself, I am only too aware, that there will not be the care , there , for me, should I require it……not as I I would have once given ,to my patients ,back in the day! Like many others in our age group, I just have to be thankful for my life as it is and thankful for what I have especially my home and reasonable “health”. My two children , 3 grandchildren and two pets! All in all , I consider myself extremely lucky and shall try to preserve what I have, for as long as I can! Best wishes to you and hope your alterations are going well.