Longer lifespans: A coming crisis or reason to celebrate?

Ashton Applewhite: The 20th century saw an unprecedented leap in human lifespan in the developed world. In America alone, the American lifespan increased by 30 years. That doesn't mean everyone lived 30 years longer. It was mainly a function of more of us surviving to adulthood. But we have gained an average of 10 healthy years in whatever stage of life I'm in, which we don't have a name for, because it's so new I'm 66. This is an incredible achievement, right? I mean, we should rejoice at this.

It is a remarkable achievement of political stability, of public health, in particular, of better medicine, lots of things. And yet, the way it is often treated, by the media in particular, is as a disaster. And partly this is because people click on disasters more than they click on 'Everyone Chugging Along Just Fine' or 'Interesting Demographic Phenomenon Happened'. The most common shorthand used for population aging is a gray tsunami, which conjures up a frankly terrifying version of this wave of old people poised to swamp the shores and suck all the social benefits, and all the good things that we want to leave to our kids, and our health care system, swamp them and suck all the good stuff out to sea. And that language is misleading and wrong.

It is like the alarmist language, if you think about it, used to describe other demographic threats, like the yellow peril, the red menace. Think about that. This just amps up our fears without a rational basis. The fact is that population aging in the United States is the best studied demographic phenomenon in history. We have known for 66 years, if not more, that the baby boom was coming along, that our parents had more children, that my children represent another mini baby boom. The question is, why have we not done more to prepare wisely for not just the challenge that this represents, but the massive opportunity?

And the answer is that we live in an ageist society. We live in a society that tends to frame aging as a problem, because if it's a problem we can be persuaded to do things to fix it. And if it's framed as an illness, and you often see aging just equated with debility and decline, whereas in fact it is also a period of enormous growth and opportunity. Because if aging is a disease, we can be sold stuff to cure it or to stop it. The only way to stop aging is to be dead. Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process on which we are embarked at the day we're born. It's not just something annoying old people do or celebrities do. And it is something we should celebrate.

  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


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