Life expectancy has been rising steadily for nearly two centuries — so much so that centenarians seem almost common now. The oldest living person is 115, and we should expect the upper limits of age to keep climbing in the coming decades.
It’s not out of the question that 150-year-old people could exist in the future, which poses some essential questions: What happens when Social Security dries up in extreme old age? Now that many of us are getting older, how long do we have to wait to retire? If we extend our lives, are we truly living? We need to think about this now that technology and other breakthroughs are rapidly revolutionizing healthcare and promising to extend lives like never before.
However, these existential questions don’t directly address the needs of living to older ages. Factors such as saving enough retirement money, preserving quality of life, and sustaining family relationships are vital in making sure we live not just long lives, but comfortable and happy ones.
We need to grapple with what this all means for happiness and health as new generations begin living decades longer than their predecessors.
The Future of Old Age
Life expectancy has risen by three months each year since 1840, according to research in The Atlantic. This means babies born at the end of this century will live to be 100 years old on average. And though that projection might sound audacious, medical advancements already exist that could make it possible.
Take 3D bioprinting, for instance. It works a lot like regular 3D printing, but we can expect the finished products to be living tissue, bone, and even functioning organs rather than plastic or metal. This tech is in its early stage, but it’s not unreasonable to think of future hospitals printing out working hearts, kidneys, and lungs for patients. We’ll literally be able to regenerate ourselves — even if it’s just a few parts.
Surgery also has its own advancements. Virtual reality training methods now allow medical students to master their craft much faster, vastly improving surgical outcomes. Robotic surgical assistants promise to do something similar, making surgical procedures much more precise.
It’s clear we’ll be able to keep our bodies alive for longer, but what about the individuals inside of them? For many, physical and mental health begin to seriously decline around 80. So what would happen if that was near our halfway point in life? Even with medical and technical interventions, this still begs the question of what life would be like in the decades beyond 80.
Stretching Out a Budget
Living longer certainly has consequences, but who can resist the opportunity to cheat death? It’s irresistible, even if it might be irresponsible. No matter what your opinion is, however, we all need to prepare for a future where “elderly” means something much different.
When Social Security was in its infancy in 1940, the average American spent 17 percent of life retired, according to the previously cited article in The Atlantic. That total now stands at 22 percent, and it continues to grow. When life spans were shorter, it made sense to take early retirement at 62 in exchange for smaller benefits. In the future, it could mean years of paltry public support.
And unless the system changes, private savings won’t pick up where Social Security stops. The retirement savings gap — or what is needed versus what is saved — grows by $3 trillion each year in the United States alone. For perspective, that’s five times the annual defense budget.
The financial burden isn’t just on Social Security and similar programs. At least in the United States, end-of-life care is expensive and puts stress on systems such as Medicare, where a quarter of spending goes to patients in their last year of life. Once we begin extending the least healthy years of our lives, it could spell out unsustainably high national healthcare costs.
The seniors of tomorrow need to be aware of these issues, as a longer life is as inevitable as it is elective. Life spans will increase regardless of whether people truly want to live longer, making the financial consequences unavoidable for both individuals and societies. First, we need to begin thinking of retirement as something that starts later and lasts longer. Then, we need to begin saving accordingly.
We can, will, and should continue debating what it means to live longer. It’s a philosophical question that reaches every corner of life, and we might never have definitive answers. We can focus on what’s certain, though: Life is longer than we realize, and thriving later requires preparation now.