Wise beyond his years

Now that the hard part of Step II is over, I'm catching up on some magazine reading. This month's Atlantic had a wonderfully sharp piece on the consequences of longevity, by Charles C. Mann. I'd already heard the data on social security taxes, on divorce rates being correlated to lifespan, and even the chilling effect of longevity on career advancement (last year the Boston Globe profiled a 70-something year old lawyer, who was still waiting to take over the family firm from his centenarian father.)

But this Atlantic piece goes farther, predicting more of the strains that arise from a civilization full of elders: They'll be rich and powerful, thanks to lobbyists and compound interest. They'll be disconnected from other generations, having spent only a small fraction of their lives raising children. And their kids! With no hope of rapid career advancement, and no prospect for timely inheritance, more young adults will spend their twenties and thirties bumming around and getting educated (in the future, I guess, everyone will be a mudphud):
From our short-life-expectancy point of view, quasi-adulthood may seem like a period of socially mandated fecklessness—what Leon Kass, the chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, has decried as the coming culture of "protracted youthfulness, hedonism, and sexual license." In Japan, ever in the demographic forefront, as many as one out of three young adults is either unemployed or working part-time, and many are living rent-free with their parents. Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Tokyo Gakugei University, has sarcastically dubbed them parasaito shinguru, or "parasite singles." ...

...To Kass, the main cause of this stasis is "the successful pursuit of longer life and better health." Kass's fulminations easily lend themselves to ridicule. Nonetheless, he is in many ways correct. According to Yuji Genda, an economist at Tokyo University, the drifty lives of parasite singles are indeed a by-product of increased longevity, mainly because longer-lived seniors are holding on to their jobs. Japan, with the world's oldest population, has the highest percentage of working senior citizens of any developed nation: one out of three men over sixty-five is still on the job. Everyone in the nation, Genda says, is "tacitly aware" that the old are "blocking the door."

In a world of 200-year-olds "the rate of rise in income and status perhaps for the first hundred years of life will be almost negligible," the crusty maverick economist Kenneth Boulding argued in a prescient article from 1965. "It is the propensity of the old, rich, and powerful to die that gives the young, poor, and powerless hope." (Boulding died in 1993, opening up a position for another crusty maverick economist.)

Kass believes that "human beings, once they have attained the burdensome knowledge of good and bad, should not have access to the tree of life." Accordingly, he has proposed a straightforward way to prevent the problems of youth in a society dominated by the old: "resist the siren song of the conquest of aging and death." Senior citizens, in other words, should let nature take its course once humankind's biblical seventy-year lifespan is up. Unfortunately, this solution is self-canceling, since everyone who agrees with it is eventually eliminated. Opponents, meanwhile, live on and on. Kass, who is sixty-six, has another four years to make his case.

I remember discussing Lucretius' "On Death" in a college philosophy class. We couldn't quite get our heads around the author's conclusion: it's ok to fear the pain of dying, but fearing death itself was irrational, since death was nothingness. One of the eighteen- or nineteen year-olds in the class implored the professor that fearing death made sense, we were young, we had goals, etc. We all wanted to live forever.

Our prof (who couldn't have been more than thirty-five) said we'd get over that, when we were his age. Time may yet prove him right.