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Once you get into your fifties, stories about billionaires investing in the search for the elixir of youth don’t seem quite as annoying as they might have done a few decades earlier. Of course, these tycoons are concerned only with extending their own lives, but I can live with a few more years of Jeff Bezos if a side effect is a few more years for me.
Altos Labs is a Silicon Valley effort drawing major investment (including from Bezos, apparently) for what it calls “biological reprogramming” technology, which I have to admit is what I thought admen used to call the “active” ingredient of anti-wrinkle cream. It makes sense. Once you’ve got your billion dollars and your luxury survivalist shelter in New Zealand, you want to maximise the time you have to enjoy them. Even if Altos cannot add years to your life, it may find ways to stave off the ageing process, leaving people fitter for longer.
There are still a fair few hurdles to get over. But some fear the treatment will be affordable only to the mega-rich, in which case we can look forward to a new gerontocracy where the world is now run by centenarian plutocrats while everyone else works on zero-hour contracts until they can be replaced by a drone. And there is the terrifying prospect of a constantly regenerating Donald Trump.
But while there’s lots of fun to be had mocking the billionaires’ dreams, what should give us more pause for thought is not a few rich guys living on for decades but the consequences of everyone else doing the same. And this is leaving aside all those in other continents who would be thrilled just to reach western levels of life expectancy.
As I say, middle age has given me a new interest in longevity; not enough of an interest to go to the gym, but certainly enough to pop a few wonder drugs provided they don’t make my ears fall off. And I’m at the perfect age to benefit. A few years for them to nail the product, another 10 to make it affordable for mere earthlings and, hey, I could be surfing in my seventies, which would be cool, since I never managed in my twenties.
We all want to cling on, but are we really ready for a world in which boomers and Gen Xers take even longer to shove off? It’s bad enough now, with almost all public policy weighted towards the needs of asset-rich older voters; imagine how much worse it will be when there are even more of us insisting the political parties save our homes and triple-lock our pensions.
And if we are dying later and ageing more slowly, we will need to work longer. Ambitious young thrusters will find that senior management is no longer full of bed-blocking 50-year-olds but bed-blocking 70-year-olds, all still framing life through a cultural lens you have to be 40 even to understand. Those with the most wealth and status will be the least ready to leave the stage.
There will be other downsides. Can the Treasury actually cope with an extra decade of personal texts from David Cameron? Consider the alternative to Emma Raducanu’s wonderful win: “And welcome to Flushing Meadow, where we are cheering Martina Navratilova’s 36th consecutive victory.”
I don’t want to get all Logan’s Run about this (speaking of 1970s cultural references) but society is still struggling to cope with the extra longevity we already enjoy. When I was a boy, 70 was considered a good age. Now any first-world citizen who does not make it into their eighties is deemed to have been short-changed.
This is a good thing.
Yet governments are still running to catch up with the consequences for healthcare and pension costs, asset redistribution and employment opportunities. In Britain, the state pension age is rising to 67 in 2026, but those most reliant on it are more likely to be engaged in harder physical work. Living longer might be nice. Living longer with less money and poorer public services, not so much.
A longer-lasting population demands more spending on public services, higher taxes, changed expectations for the young and more homes. A better, more active life is one thing, but health technology is outpacing public policy. If Altos is going to build an older world, we need to plan for it now.
If the firm limits itself to treatments to sustain cognitive ability or bolster bone density, all will be thrilled. Who would not choose a long autumn and a short winter to the other way round? But perhaps it can keep its ambitions from getting too biblical. Even plutocrats must pass. And besides, humanity has more pressing threats.
Leaving aside the societal challenges, what gives life its value is that fact it is finite.
Much as I’d like to live forever, the world can have too much of a good thing.
Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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