The September 2016 edition of the Scientific American magazine included nine key questions about our future, one of them being “will we defeat ageing?” The author, unsurprisingly, could not say for sure. But the remarkable thing is that even in a normally cautious publication like Scientific American, it is taken for granted that this is a possibility. And they are not alone. In his 2016 work Super Humans, Professor Michael Bess, a specialist in the history of science, predicts lifespans of 130, and possibly higher, for those in the developed world. Assuming that this is indeed true, we will have to re-think many of our goals and ambitions.
Next time you are sitting in a bar or cafe with a group of friends, raise the topic of radical life extension and you can be sure that, along with overpopulation, someone will mention boredom. Of course, they do not mean bored in the sense of having nothing to do; they mean something deeper and more fundamental: bored as in jaded, cynical, and tired of life. The first goal or ambition must therefore be to avoid this. That jaded, empty feeling that “I’ve seen it all before” is not only unpleasant but dangerous. People then become careless with their health, put less effort into their relationships, and sink into apathetic depression.
Knowledge and learning are perhaps the best antidote. In general, people still think of school and university as places to learn the skills necessary to pursue a career and earn lots of money. But education also opens and expands the mind. Oscar Wilde once remarked that during his time at Oxford he had “learnt to play gracefully with ideas.” And this would be a good start. People should aim not only to accumulate knowledge but to develop a certain mindset: one that is open, receptive, and enthusiastic. And we must not only play with ideas but be excited by them. That means being a lifelong student, committed to lifelong learning, not just to improve your “transferable skills” and make you more employable but to preserve your own sanity and help you remain thrilled by, and engaged with, the world.
Indeed, it has often been argued that education ought to be fundamentally reformed. Instead of stuffing bored little heads with information, the teacher, so the argument goes, should help the child discover his or her passion and then allow them to pursue it. This has even been tried at experimental schools, with mixed results. Just as importantly, the teacher has a duty to inspire a lifelong hunger for knowledge.
Unfortunately, for many people school has the exact opposite effect: making them feel stupid and instilling a bitter hatred towards things like science or poetry. Those who do discover a passion, however, are sometimes made to feel they are wasting their time. For example, a teacher may assure her student that his music or acting, though fun, is also futile and that he needs to think about “getting a proper job.”
Another important area to be affected by longer lifespans is work. The idea of a career for life is already under strain. And the idea of identifying yourself by a job title will also come under pressure.
First, and most obviously, if you are going to live a lot longer, you need to consider your career path more carefully. Quite simply, being trapped in a job you loathe for 40 years is not so bad as being trapped in it for 90. That said, it would be wise to prepare for several careers, and to be willing to re-train.
More generally, there is the question of what work will be available. Robots and Artificial Intelligence are going to wipe out ever-increasing numbers of jobs. To take just one example, self-driving vehicles will soon make taxi, truck, and delivery drivers redundant. But A.I. will take many white collar jobs as well. So concerned have the most forward-thinking politicians become that many are floating the idea of a “Universal Basic Income”: paying everyone a basic, liveable wage. If they can then find work to supplement that income, so be it. Indeed, there are plans to try this out in Finland and possibly Sweden.
One of the few areas of work the machines will never take over, however, will be those demanding love and care. No machine can comfort a lonely old person in a care home or someone about to face a serious operation. Empathy and interpersonal skills will be valued more highly than ever before, so make an effort to develop and perfect them.
And this is why it is so important to keep your mind supple, open, and adaptable: not only will a young person live a great deal longer than they expect, they may also have a great deal more free time. Hopefully, people will spend that working on their relationships and helping one another. This may sound idealistic, but if people do not have their time eaten up by stress and work, they will have more to devote to nurturing the young and caring for friends and neighbors.
In April 2016, an interesting article appeared in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, debating what longer lifespans will mean for relationships. If people really are going to be living over 100 years, and in good physical health, then, as the article points out, that is “a radical shift, one that forces us to question our assumptions about commitment and love.”
Assuming that someone is in their 20s or 30s and single, should they prepare for different kinds of relationships to those of their parents or grandparents? Put bluntly, can monogamy survive in an age of longer lifespans, or should our goals and expectations change? If people struggle to remain faithful for 30 or 40 years (and let’s face it, many do struggle), remaining faithful for over 100 may prove impossible. The rise of the so-called “silver splitters” would suggest that this is indeed the case. In the UK, for example, divorce rates have fallen in all groups except the over-50s, among whom it has risen by 11% over the last couple of decades.
In any case, the idea of lifelong marriage has been under attack for some time. Some feminists, for example, see marriage, and even lifelong commitment, as a relic of the patriarchy. And they are not alone. Even Freud argued that attempts to contain or limit the sex drive led to mental illness. But should the goal of a long and happy marriage be scrapped? In general, most people find endless, casual dating, without love or commitment, leaves them lonely and unfulfilled.
In her book Anatomy of Love, Dr Helen Fisher suggests the goal of lifelong commitment will be replaced with what she terms “serial monogamy,” meaning that people will be much more open to second and third marriages. Almost certainly, the idea of loving the same person for life will remain, but it will be more of an abstract ideal, one to aspire to, and one that some continue to realize, but one the majority accept as unrealistic. Put another way, it will be more accepted that love doesn’t always last; and when relationships do break down, people will be better prepared and will face less shock, criticism, or disappointment from their family and friends.
Obviously, you cannot plan who you will fall in love with or how long it will last. But if the lifespan really is going to increase to 120 or 130, then people may have to adopt a more realistic attitude. Given limitless time, perhaps every romantic relationship would run its course. You may also have to drop the irrational idea of “the one” and instead accept that there may be many “ones” out there for you to love and be loved by.
It may be necessary to be more open-minded about mixed families as well. Second and third marriages will involve stepchildren, maybe even step-grandchildren or step great grandchildren! And people will have to be more respectful of the love that develops between them and their non-biological children and grandchildren. In other words, we will have to be more accepting of the fact that a stepfather can leave his partner but stay in touch with her children or grandchildren, even as he begins a new relationship with new step children or grandchildren.
Perhaps the single most important goal to set is that of simple flexibility. The longer people live, the more prepared they will have to be to change jobs, retrain, and form new relationships.