We have all sat through the laborious exercise of having a family picture taken. The end result of the chaos is typical across almost all families: a happy picture showing two gray haired grandparents, a few adult children with their partners, and several little grandchildren. Now we’re going to show you a family portrait from the year 2050, just a few decades away. In the 2050 family picture, there will be many siblings in their 60s with graying hair, a handful of adult children with their spouses, and just two or three grandchildren. It’s a strange picture: a family with more older people than younger people. Everything we’ve grown up seeing in our families and neighborhoods is contrary to this picture. Yet this is exactly the kind of family that will dominate the middle and late half of the 21st century. We’re moving to a world of old people, and unless science can radically stop the aging process, that family will be yours in 2050.
The graying population of the world, especially in the developed countries, has been known for some time: there will be three times as many 60 year olds by 2050 as they are today; even more shocking, by 2150, one in three people will be over 65. Ted C. Fishman, author of Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World’s Population and How It Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival and Nation Against Nation, writes about how the aging of the world is going to affect us. He worries about age apartheid and a world where countries will compete for young workers, shoving aside their elderly into low paying jobs. This is not a pretty picture of the aging planet.
Stefany Anne Goldberg views the new old world through a different lens in her poetic piece in the Smart Set. She muses about the pros of a world inhabited by older people: “One can imagine this world full of ancients to be gentler, too, where everything is softer, and time is forced to move at a slower pace, as it is for the cows who mosey across the mad streets of Delhi, assured that the traffic will part for them (and it does). Some are saying that a new era of stability and peace will come in the new old world, that we’re already seeing the benefits (look how contented Europe is), that wars are made by the restless, dissatisfied young.”
Anti-aging therapists like Aubrey de Grey, unlike Goldberg, find old age and a world of old people unequivocally unattractive. Old age brings maladies like diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s; it makes one tired easily, unable to sleep well, or run and have sex easily; it makes one's metabolism slow, one's bones brittle, and one's skin wrinkled. In other words, old age is not fun. Frankly, it is hard to argue with the fact that old age is generally more unpleasant than youth. De Grey believes that science is capable of stopping the aging mechanisms of our bodies. If he receives the funding he needs, he is convinced that we can decouple chronological age from biological age, i.e. even if we’re chronologically 70 years old, for instance, our bodies can biologically look and feel as if they're 50, 30 or even 20 years old.
Will we all be happy when we move from an old world to a young world? Not if a world of ever youthful people (who never die of old age) is also a place where a burgeoning population fights over scarce resources. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins worries about population explosion. He says it is the arrogance of immortality to concern itself with people living forever without caring for how the young will fare in a resource constrained world.
Which world do you want to live in: the gray world or the youthful world? If you support the young world, you need to push the FDA to treat aging like a disease so that anti-aging research can be funded, and perhaps even write a check to the SENS Foundation started by Aubrey de Grey. If you support the graying world, you will want to lobby your government for protection of elderly rights and pensions. You need to act today: your future family portrait depends on it.
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.