The cover story for the October issue of the Atlantic is titled “What Happens When We All Live to 100?” The author, Gregg Easterbrook, notes that the “life expectancy escalator”—the increase in life expectancy among younger cohorts—has gone up about three months a year for the last two centuries. A graph from the article shows the expected gains in average life expectancy if this rate of increase continues through 2080:
Easterbrook cites James Vaupel of Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Demographic Research to the effect that it is a “reasonable scenario” that increases in life expectancy will continue at least until the average expected lifespan of newborns surpasses 100. Vaupel is not predicting major medical breakthroughs that would result in such an increase. Past increases have come about as a result of numerous improvements in areas such as nutrition, public health, sanitation, and medical knowledge; he expects future increments in life expectancy to result from continued gradual innovations in these fields.
Easterbrook describes several lines of medical research aimed at increasing life expectancy, writes about the effects of our personal choices on our likely lifespans, and considers the likely political and economic consequences of having a society most of whose members are middle-aged or elderly. What interested me most, though, was his speculation concerning how the culture might change if lifespans were much longer than they are presently. Here’s what he imagines would happen to higher education, for example:
“Colleges will reposition themselves economically as offering just as much to the aging as to the adolescent: courses priced individually for later-life knowledge seekers; lots of campus events of interest to students, parents, and the community as a whole; a pleasant college-town atmosphere to retire near.”
And here are his thoughts about what might happen to consumerism:
“Neurological studies of healthy aging people show that the parts of the brain associated with reward-seeking light up less as time goes on. Whether it’s hot new fashions or hot-fudge sundaes, older people on the whole don’t desire acquisitions as much as the young and middle-aged do. Denounced for generations by writers and clergy, wretched excess has repelled all assaults. Longer life spans may at last be the counterweight to materialism.”
Even those among us who are slow to learn eventually realize that the excitement that comes with new possessions fades pretty quickly. Formerly new things that are now worn, or have worn out their welcome, clutter our closets and attics. So what’s the point of adding to our store? Besides, there’s little appeal in keeping up with the Joneses when Mr. and Mrs. Jones, now nonagenarians, have slowed to a crawl.
Here’s one more cultural change suggested by Easterbrook:
“[I]f health span extends, the nuclear family might be seen as less central. For most people, bearing and raising children would no longer be the all-consuming life event. After child-rearing, a phase of decades of friendships could await—potentially more fulfilling than the emotionally charged but fast-burning bonds of youth.”
For most of us who are done with childrearing, our bonds with our children continue to be among the most important relationships we have. Still, once free of the demands of child care, we have more freedom to cultivate additional relationships. As I’ve gotten older, fewer of my friendships are with people I work with, and more are with people with whom I share other affinities. I look forward to having more such friendships in the years to come. Perhaps what will give “the golden years” their luster are the rich relationships that are to be found there.