I’m not much into futurism. I’m still waiting for my flying car and my trip to Tranquility Shores on the Moon.
But those are lifestyle changes of the future. It’s far more accurate to examine trends in advances in healthcare to predict how we’re going to be living 30, 50, or 80 years from now. We knew 30 years ago that improvements in diagnostics would lead to earlier cancer treatment and longer lives. And steady improvements in detecting and treating heart disease over the last several decades have lengthened millions of people’s lives.
Today, a five-year-old child has a 50-50 chance of living to be 100. But instead of imagining a future of frail oldsters taking up space in nursing homes, we should look at the situation from a technological and cultural point of view. Rapid advances in technology will make life worth living to 100 and beyond, and cultural changes will radically alter how we age.
Related: The Morning Briefing: The Physician of the Future — Dumber, Woker, and More Likely to Kill You
National Geographic Magazine focused on one British five-year-old named Peggy and attempted to shoehorn foreseeable technological advances into how her life would be lived going forward.
As Peggy gets older, her life will be accompanied by day-to-day technological advances—such as 3D printed braces to straighten her teenaged teeth, wearable diagnostic devices and biosensors to track her health and forestall disease, or a bionic exoskeleton to ease her muscles in later life. Yet for Peggy and her generation to realize the opportunities that longevity affords, and avoid the pitfalls of ill health and running out of money, that will require society to remake virtually how every stage of life is lived. But we’re not even close to tackling that.
Today, there are three basic stages of life: 20 years of education, 45 years of work, then retirement. But what happens when we’re facing forty years of retirement? The current model values students as potential workers, workers for working, and retirees as not at all. If the advanced world is going to have 50 million people living to be 100 or more, radical changes will be necessary.
A life designed for longevity starts with education that is extended—beginning later and lasting longer—with additional years early on for play, and gap years for high school students to take jobs or do volunteer work. The same goes for college education. “Let’s give kids a break,” says Carstensen. “These extra years means the pace of life can actually slow.” Education will continue throughout life. Some universities already offer a “60-year curriculum” aimed at keeping workers up to date in a fast-changing employment market.
Work, too, will be reinvented. “The big shadow hanging over longer lives is that you can’t avoid having to work for longer,” says Scott. To pay for longer lives, working lives must be longer too, but work will be more flexible. Lifetime work could involve the same number of hours, but spread across 50 or 60 years instead of 30 or 40, with career breaks, part-time work, and switching jobs at different stages of life.
In truth, democratic societies are very bad at planning for the future. That probably means a lag time between the way old people live today and discovering the necessity of how they need to be living in the future. While medical science and health care will make huge leaps in treating disease, the biggest changes will come in trying to figure out how to fill up those extra years productively.
We can all see the possibility of a future dystopia; rationing health care, fewer employment opportunities, and the growing power of the state stifling freedom. It’s not a done deal by any means. There is hope in the power of the individual mind to change how we live and work.
Believing in that is more exciting than flying cars, anyway.