Life expectancy has been steadily increasing across most of the world over the last century and with this expansion comes a wave of fundamental shifts in society, whether we are prepared for it or not.
With a third of children in the UK expected to reach their 100th birthday, we need to ask what happens when ‘extreme old age’ is no longer the exception but is now the norm?
If you lived to a hundred, how many jobs would you have? Would you remain in the same profession in your 70s as in your 30s? How many meaningful relationships would you have? Would you live in different houses or cities or even countries? How would your values and beliefs change across your life?
The reality is that with prolonged life expectancies comes a multitude of repercussions that many would not expect.
Older Workers Impact on Employment Opportunities
Unemployment could potentially increase across the globe, with the younger generations bearing the brunt. As older generations stay in the workforce longer, keeping positions that would usually be open to younger workers entering the workplace for the first time. Instead of fighting other college graduates, workers will fight more experienced elders.
Of course, there are some natural impacts of ageing that mean that we all become slightly slower and less physically able as we age, and there are some job roles (especially manual labour) where a 70yr old is unlikely to have the physical capacity to deliver the job in the way they did in their 20-30s.
However, for higher skilled and technical roles, there is the potential that older workers experience becomes valued and prized, provided they can adapt to technological breakthroughs and new ways of working.
We could also face a potential problem when elders are ready to retire out of the workforce that the economy becomes destabilised because of a top heavy population pyramid. The number of older individuals could potentially outnumber the number of working people. This is a model we sometimes see where there has been significant warfare leading to the death of most of the working age adult population, and it has devastating impact on the overall economic stability of the country. The risk is that there wouldn’t be enough financial resources through taxation from working adults entering the government to support facilities and care for the elderly.
As elder populations continue to increase they may become the dominant population group shaping communities through customer demand and potentially through the democratic process.
Cities, as they grow, will need to consider the physical enablers for older adults and ensure that housing, transport and public space meets the needs of older people. Some countries are already in this space developing age integrated communities and urban planning approaches that enable older people to remain active and independent as long as possible.
Businesses will need to also adapt to the older customer as a dominate consumer driver; this may change advertising targeting as well as taking into account the needs of older customers such as dementia friendly services or simply larger print menus in restaurants.
Increased Focus On Medicine That Would Decrease The Aging Process
No matter how long people live, the issue that we will face is the aftereffects of being old. That would include losing sight and hearing, and dementia — all problems that occur later in life.
The focus of most medical research has been on working age adults, many medical trials cut off participants at 65yrs old, but with an ageing population we need to understand how to better treat older people as well as how to respond to the specific physiological processes of ageing.
As more people live into their 100s, they are going to demand more research and more of a focus on treating the issues of ageing. They may expect to have full control of their body and able to do what they could do when they were younger.
Interestingly the most impactful thing that individuals can do to delay or defer the ageing decline are lifestyle changes rather than medical interventions or pills. Exercise, meditation, healthy eating and stopping smoking all have proven impacts on the decline of ageing and enable individuals to live longer, healthier, happier lives.
Fundamentally we will see a shift in the hierachies of medicine – geriatrics, the medicine of the elderly, will move from being a bit of a cinderella specialism into being the mainstay of healthcare research and delivery.
The Ethical Question That Needs To Be Asked
Before all of this can come to fruition, we first need first to ask ourselves, should we? Should society have the ability to stave off death and live longer through the use of technology and medication? We as a society need to first come to terms with this powerful question. While many see it as a blatant yes, others in the community may not feel the same. It is a moral question that needs to be asked and answered before we can see the successful implementation of technology that would keep humans living longer.
This will not happen all at once. Instead, the impact of increased older generations will occur gradually over time. But the last century has demonstrated how quickly the creep of innovation and evolution can change society so perhaps it’s time that we have a more open conversation about the impact of immortality before it becomes a social and economic reality.