100 plus what?: Local author predicts the benefits, drawbacks of longer life


In her book "100 Plus," Sonia Arrison points to an impending wave of technology — including gene therapy and tissue engineering — that, she hopes, will make radically extended, healthy lifespans as matter-of-fact as getting a flu shot.

The founder of Mountain View's Singularity University, an educational company that focuses on the potential of cutting-edge technology, imagines how a society accustomed to 150-year lifespans would look and behave, and her book attempts to serve as a call to action to start preparing for it.

So what will this future look like? The short answer: like today but even more so. For example, marriages and first children will happen even later than they do now. Couples will have fewer children, but there will be more generations of families. There will be more marriages and divorces. The prevalence of the traditional nuclear family will continue declining.

More "life phases" will emerge. Scholars, Arrison writes, have coined the term "adult-lescence," which denotes a period between adolescence and adulthood (one's 20s and early 30s). With a radically extended lifespan, Arrison writes, more phases will emerge between categories that were previously strictly defined.

Arrison believes that, given more time, people will become more concerned with how to live a good life. Increased longevity and, possibly, the indefinite postponement of death may actually make religions more important, but only if they change their focus from death, punishment and the afterlife to more moral and spiritual guidance.

Economically, she writes, "health brings wealth." Indeed, being healthy for longer means people can work for longer and accrue more compensation. She points to economic data showing a relationship between longevity and economic growth. Two countries with a similar economy but with different life expectancies can expect to accrue significantly different amounts of wealth.

Additionally, she claims longer lifespans correlate with lower fertility, which may mitigate the risk of over-population.

The environment would benefit from the increased wealth resulting from longevity; she points out that as economies modernize they go through a period of damaging the environment, but as they become wealthier they spend more on environmental protection and rehabilitation.

Innovation would also increase, she predicts. Arrison points out that innovators seem to peak in their production in their 40s and 50s; extending lifespan could allow geniuses to continue making contributions to society.

The potentially negative consequences she imagines are also things already seen today. Diseases will decline but mental health problems will persist, making psychiatry a future "growth industry," she writes. Generational conflicts in the workplace will be deeper and more widespread.

Arrison spends a chapter on what she thinks is, and will be, the biggest problem: the "longevity divide." The average life expectancy of a person in Monaco, one of the richest countries in the world, is 90 years. The average life expectancy of a person in Angola, one of the poorest, is only 38. One country that breaks from the correlation between wealth and life expectancy is the U.S., which, with a 78-year average lifespan, is ranked 51st in the world despite its massive wealth. The reason may have something to do with its longevity (and wealth) divide: A wealthy Asian-American woman in New Jersey has an average life-expectancy of 91 years while a poor Native-American man in South Dakota has an average life-expectancy of only 58 years.

Arrison laments the longevity divide but argues longevity technology should be brought to market by private enterprises. Her libertarian prescription for the distribution of longevity technology would, she admits, increase the longevity divide, at least in the short term. The rich, who would be the primary investors in the technology, would be the first to access it. When the technology comes to market, it would likely be prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people. Wealth would, in fact, continue to bring health.

Related content:

After the last death: Doctors, academics debate the possibility, value of a 150-year lifespan

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