The socioeconomics of human longevity

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2009

generationsAlmost as if they timed it to coincide with the just-finished Singularity Summit, a group of medical researchers published a paper last week in the prestigious journal The Lancet which shows that life expectancy in Western nations is increasing steadily, alongside quality of life in those later years. The trend shows no signs of levelling off any time soon, leading other ageing experts to hypothesise that there may be no intrinsic cap on the human lifespan. [via NextBigFuture; image by technowannabe]

The Guardian picked up the same press release and ran with it, providing us with the increasingly common spectacle of regular journalists and scientists engaging in science fictional speculation:

Life expectancy is increasing so fast that half the babies born in 2007 will live to be at least 103, while half the Japanese babies born in the same year will reach the age of 107.

The bad news is that the ageing populations of rich countries such as the UK threaten to unbalance the population. It “poses severe challenges for the traditional social welfare state,” write Christensen and colleagues.

But they have a radical solution: young and old should work fewer hours a week. Over a lifetime, we would all spend the same total amount of time at work as we do now, but spread out over the years.

“The 20th century was a century of redistribution of income. The 21st century could be a century of redistribution of work,” they write. “Redistribution would spread work more evenly across populations and over the ages of life. Individuals could combine work, education, leisure and child rearing in varying amounts at different ages.”

It is a theory that is beginning to receive “some preliminary attention”, the authors say, citing a study in the Science journal three years ago which suggested that shorter working weeks would help young people and increase western Europe’s flagging birth rate.

Shorter working weeks might further increase health and life expectancy, Christensen and colleagues write. But redistribution of work will not solve all the problems caused by a society with a large number of very old people. Beyond a certain point, the old will need younger people to look after them – although technology is likely to provide some help in advanced countries such as the UK.

The four-day week idea has been growing in strength ever since the markets nosedived about a year ago, and experiments indicate that it has lots of beneficial effects for both workers and their employers.

But once again we’re back to the issue of greying populations and sustainable reproductive rates, which looks like its going to be the meme of the season… thanks in no small part to the US healthcare debate, which – if you ignore the hot-air rhetoric and obfuscation on all sides – is largely about finding a fair way for the increasing number of elderly citizens to be supported by a diminishing number of younger workers. We’ve got no cause to feel smug on this side of the pond, either; free healthcare may be commonplace in Europe already, but it’s going to be just as stretched by demographic shifts as it will be in the States.

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One Response to “The socioeconomics of human longevity”

  1. khannea says:

    No it won’t. Medical treatments on par with the 1970s would, if implemented now for a category of people, cost about onehalf of the care (or less) as current care costs. While medical organizations would fight tooth and nail to resist such a conception (many 1970s meds and treatments make them no profits at all since involved IPs have matured) people would actually get pretty decent health care if we decided to “go on strike”. I know, we can’t afford to in the current system.

    But imagine this – an alternative medical system where you insure – and instead of receiving care when you get sick – a physician gives you instructions on a near daily basis – ‘eat some extra broccoli’.. how much do you weigh… ‘take a long walk somewhere this week’. And if you do, you find yourself getting a lot less ill. Intensive monitoring, near weekly contact, assertive focus on staying healthy – don’t even think about fast food or smoking or dangerous hobbies. Such a medical plan would cost far less, and increase quality of life, even if it sucked. As soon as you can instantaneously feedback actions to consequences (your current insurance is 139.17E next month or 4.49 per day – eat this portion of broccoli and your insurance drops by 0.17 cents, take this long walk with your dog and your insurance drops by 0.22 cents. Eat that chili dog and your insurance increases by 0.17 cents next month) with no “dictator telling you what to do” this new health care system should blow all the old systems into oblivion.

    The next step is asking – what will decrease service provisions even better – an insurer might be prompted to work towards your health instead of trying to sell you crap – imagine you wearing a small AI that records your actions – and then closes insurance on the fly with whatever insurer that is willing to take you on (within legal parameters). You might switch insurers several times per month and you wouldn’t even notice. Your AIgent would constantly steer you towards optimized behavior, using latest knowledge, crowdsourcing, a backoffice looking out for you (as opposed to tapeworm corporate lawyers and vampire shareholders) and your interests. Obviously, the damn medical caste hyena’s would fight this tooth and nail but it won’t be long before a variant of technology allows such a business model to take root.

    The big equalizer would then eventually be an AIgent being able to broker deals with both medical insurer, pension funds and state. Say – you have a deal based on investments, pension funds and political coalition in place that calculates *instantly* your current “retirement value”. If you are likely to live longer, your retirement value decreases, obviously, because some insurer would end up paying longer. But on the other hand, the state would seriously have financial benefits to cultivate healthy, taxpaying people.
    In such a climate of instant feedbacking a society could, and most of all empowered consumers, would find themselves constantly motivated to look for life extension treatments. Say, your AIgent shows you a statistical “life expectancy”, based on your genes (which information it does NOT share with insurers!), your behavior, and the conditions you live under. Such a device would be constantly available to consult on choices made … “if you interact with this social group your average life expectancy drops from 98y3m15d8h17m to 98y2m28d1h55m”. Get that latest telomerase treatment and you gain 4 months. Do yoga and gain another 3 months.

    This hinges on a new infrastructure. Imagine the raw existential terror of current medical insurers when they think about such an… intermediary.. insurers paying some… intermediary… to extend their life and the quality of life, and that intermediary engaging in agressive negotiations with medical companies and medical insurers. No longer treating your medical as your partner – hell no – consumers effecxtively ‘unionize’ and PROTECT themselves from their medical insurer, the hospital and the government.

    We can have something like this in less than 5 years.