Tag Archives: ageing

The greys are coming! From generation gap to economic turf-war

Props to George Dvorsky for flagging up this Salon interview with Ted C Fishman, promoting his new book Shock Of Gray, which is all about the recent rapid increases in human longevity, and the knock-on effects of such. Perhaps we’ll finally shake off our geographical differences only to get caught up in an economic tug of war between the elderly and the young:

As baby boomers start to approach the age of 65 in large numbers, do you foresee a civil rights movement for older adults, given that generation’s history of activism?

There might be a civil rights movement, but people won’t recognize it as a civil rights movement. They’ll see it as an economic turf war. When you get the resources of a society, you get the respect. You can see this in Europe right now, where the population is somewhat older than it is here. The debt crisis has really caused a huge and quick reckoning with the crisis in pension funding and hundreds of thousands of people are coming into the street. They made promises to themselves and now they find that they can’t keep those promises. In some ways, they’re battling their past selves.

But they feel like they are fighting a younger generation.

Yeah, I think that’s right. But in the long run the battle will not be for who gets what share of the public financing. It will be a more traditional civil rights issue, which is: Evaluate me on my abilities and my skills, not on my weaknesses. The older population is a hugely diverse one. If the image of an older person is going to be exclusively that of an enabled, sharp, cognitively with-it, older person who can work into their 70s and 80s, then we’re ignoring a huge part of the population that will need our help.

Not exactly a new idea, but one that probably isn’t getting the attention it deserves; longevity is kind of sneaking up on us while we bicker about other matters.

Here’s an idea that’s new, though, or at least it is to me: longevity as an accelerator of globalisation.

You argue that when wealthy nations started to age, that actually sped up globalization.

Right. Aging economies — Japan and Europe and the United States — are shopping the world for youth. The traditional workplace is changing to drive older people out — the cost of healthcare and pensions weighs very heavily on global companies — and places such as China have a population that it could send to the cities unburdened by age and the cost of age. Globalization really is a function of demographic change. When you go into beat-up, industrial towns you can feel it. You can see that older workers who used to be on the factory are now doing minimum-wage work at big-box stores on the edge of town. And then China has factories that contain tens of thousands of workers, without a single soul that’s over 25 years old. And you think, the only important thing about these workers is their youth.

Unspoken but implicit in that statement is longevity-as-driver-of-immigration. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether the widespread tensions over immigration levels aren’t just a convenient proxy for concerns about the economics of greying…

The socioeconomics of human longevity

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.

The key to ending ageing?

This week’s inescapable big science story is that of Brooke Greenberg, the teenage girl whose physical and mental development has seemingly  stalled at the stage of an 11 month old infant. In addition to the lamentable tabloid freak-show component to the story, however, is the claim from a researcher that Brooke’s genetic make-up may hold the key to arresting the ageing process.

Walker thinks that Brooke is the first recorded case of what he describes as “developmental disorganization”. His hypothesis is that the cause is disruption of an as-yet unidentified gene, or genes, that hold the key to ageing by orchestrating how an organism matures to adulthood, reproduces, then gradually ages and dies.

Walker believes that Brooke lacks this “regulator” of development – first proposed in 1932 by British marine biologist, George Parker Bidder. Like Bidder, Walker believes that the regulator guides organisms through to adulthood, but also works beyond then to orchestrate ageing and, eventually, death.

It bears repeating that this is one man’s hypothesis rather than a species-wide day-pass to the fountain of youth, but let’s assume for a moment he’s right. The first ethical question here is whether Brooke should be treated as a potential source of human immortality rather than simply as an unfortunate girl in need of a lifetime of care. Personally I don’t see a problem with researching the implications of a condition alongside giving palliative care for it, as discussed in the neo-eugenics post the other day.

The second ethical question – and, to my mind, the much more important one – is whether we’re right to be chasing after human immortality as a goal. It’s a much fuzzier line; while I don’t see any problem with wanting to extend the human lifespan and eradicate the negative aspects of the physical ageing process (a matter on which I am somewhat on-side with the transhumanists), I’m not sure that we’re yet in a geopolitical state as a species where we could cope with radically extended lifespans.

Most of our modern wars revolve around resources, and resources are becoming scarcer because people already live much longer than they did a century or two ago; how much more of an issue will energy supply be in developed nations when the average life expectancy has an extra handful of decades tacked onto it? Will birth rates decline in proportion to increased lifespan, and if not, how will we cope with a population that is both expanding and greying?

The fives ages of the brain

brain of manJust for a change, I’m going to post a link without running my metaphorical mouth off about the article in question. New Scientist has been running a multi-part feature on the five ages of the human brain – from gestation to ageing and senescence – with loads of related material on the side, and I thought those of you who’ve not read it already might find it very interesting. [image by Andrew Mason]

There’s a kind of final frontier aspect to neuroscience that really intrigues me; it’s got the same sensawunda kick that good sf gives, as well as a sense of potential that’s starting to rival pure technology as we develop the ability to observe and test the systems in close detail. For example: sew a new set of hands onto someone, and their nervous system gets busy with rewiring the connections and making them work like the originals. That’s a pretty good resilience feature right there, wouldn’t you say? Especially considering it’s a built-in capability of the unmodified 1.0 release…