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Longer Lifespan Trends on Business and Society

 

From time immemorial, humans have searched for the proverbial fountain of youth. Historically, mainly plants and animals have been exploited to reverse the aging process. Many animals have been sacrificed, and still are, to provide men with youth and energy to live, love and function more effectively. Although Adam and Eve lost it, legend has it that the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for the fountain of youth when he discovered Florida. To live with the vigor of youth has been one of humanity's oldest and most elusive goals.

 

Despite countless disappointments, some scientists say we could finally be close to achieving lifetimes that are at least several decades longer if not endless. This optimistic assumption is based on the contention that this breakthrough will not come from drinking revitalizing waters or from transmuted substances, but from a scientific understanding of how the process of aging affects human body at the cellular and molecular levels. It could either be through genetic development or technology that mimics the effects of caloric restriction strategies that have successfully extended the lives of flies, worms and mice. As a result, a considerable number of scientists now think that humans will be able one day routinely live more than 140 years of age.

 

In 2012, The United Nations reported that an estimated 316,600 centenarians were alive worldwide. This is almost equal to the size of US population figures. Some expectant scientists believe that we will be able to double our life span in a few years' time. A number of exuberant optimists, such as Audrey de Gray, think the maximum human lifespan could be extended indefinitely.  Some even believe that trauma will be the only impediment depriving us from living forever. Most scientists, however, dismiss such lofty visions of immortality and find it hard to embrace the concept.

 

The constant increase in average life expectancy during the 20th century makes the trend to be one of society's greatest achievements. Life expectancy is increasing so rapidly that half the babies born in 2007 will live to be at least 103 years old. While people are glad to enjoy a longer lifespan (which is the goal of most humans), longevity is creating a lot of problems to society such as unprecedented financial burden, lack of resources, and diseases.

 

According to actuarial statistics, for over 160 years, the average lifespan has increased by roughly one year every four years. The upward trend has been consistent regardless of epidemics, famines and two world wars, but some scientists believe that the trend cannot continue indefinitely. Whether we double our lifespan or live forever, is not the issue. In this editorial, some advantages and disadvantages of longer lifespan trends on business and society will be briefly discussed to make the reader decide whether longer life span is beneficial to business and society.

 

The advantages of longer lifespan trends can accrue both business and society. Longevity has always been considered a blessing, while death has been looked upon as a nightmare to be avoided. Naturally, living longer means to be able to enjoy one's family, see grandchildren grow up, pursue the hobbies which had been put on back burners prior to retirement and, of course, to realize the dream of world travel. A lot of people die several years after retirement. A longer life will give one the opportunity to enjoy the twilight years of one's fruit of labor for so many years of clockwork to earn a living and prepare for retirement. 

 

While the individual benefits from longevity, society as a whole benefits more for generations to come. Longevity allows people the chance to contribute more with their talent. For example, had the Irish prolific writer Oscar Wilde lived longer, he would have written many more plays, fiction, essays, and poetry to entertain and enlighten the world? After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, the novel titled The Picture of Dorian Gray.  He died in Paris at the early age of 46. There are countless of other talented people who had died prematurely. Included in the early death of English poets are Lord Byron (died at 36), Shelley (at 29) and Keats (at 25).  These were some of the most gifted individuals who had produced great treasures in literature during their short span of life. 

 

People living longer can also benefit the business sector. The "graying" of the world population, the "silver market," has been recognized as a growing segment of the economy with huge buying power. Manufacturers now design products appealing to the older market and direct advertising to them. The older population's special demands for products can stimulate the growth of the economy. For example, since people need to be taken care of during their older years, more nursing homes are to be built, which gives rise to an increase in jobs in home building industry. 

 

The disadvantage of longer lifespan is the aging of the population, which has its own unique problems. According to the United Nations Population Division projects, older than age 60 will increase globally from just less than 800 million in 2011 to  more than 2 billion in 2050 ( a whapping 22 percent increase). In other words, by 2050, roughly 25 percent (a quarter of the world population) will be the aged.

 

The aging population causes a series of problems to the society. The most obvious problem is that old people have to be taken care of either by their family or society. By the time people get to be 75 to 100 years old, their savings decline drastically which creates a financial burden to society. Those old people who cannot afford to live in nursing homes and have no children on whom to rely, they become the responsibility of the government. As a result, the rising proportion of older people will place financial pressure on overall healthcare spending in the developed world. The government will most definitely raise taxes to deal with its old population health requirements.

 

It should be noted that getting old does not mean getting healthier. The opposite is true. For example, The World Alzheimer Report of 2012 estimates that the total worldwide cost of dementia exceeded US$600 billion in 2010. Old people have to expect increases in healthcare costs over the next twenty years due to the increase in the incidence of dementia in the population. It has been well established that old people often have limited regenerative abilities and are more susceptible to disease, syndromes, and sickness than younger adults. They also face other social issues pertaining to retirement, loneliness, and ageism.

 

As fertility and mortality rates decline globally and as populations age, these changes affect individuals, families, governments, and private-sector organizations. All must seek to solve problems related to health care, housing, social security, retirement, and the burden of disease and disability. From personal and business perspectives, longer life would bring benefits, but the effect of longer lifespan trends on society is not an easy question to answer.

 

Longer lifespan and lower fertility rate will lead to a decrease in the young working forces. Additionally, more people living to an old ripe age means there will be more consumption of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuel. Therefore, business and society, hand in hand, should try to find alternate sources of energy to satisfy the growing need of large populations. The longer life expectancy creates a burden to society and the environment.

 

Due to space limitation, only a few advantages and disadvantages of longer lifespan were presented above which makes it hard for the reader to decide whether longevity is good thing for society.  Some 3500 years ago, cuneiform evidence suggests that the elderly generally held a place of respect in Sumerian society. They enjoyed a widespread reputation for wisdom and played a significant role in Sumerian government as advisers to the monarch. Even though, they were liable to the sufferings of war and indigence, but these were common to young and old. Any social prejudice against the elderly seems to have been predicated largely upon physical disability, especially in war, which was the Sumerian principal cause for complaint and for dreams of renewed youth.

In my opinion, the intangible advantages of longer life span outweigh its disadvantages despite the fact that longer life span puts a huge burden on society and the environment. Regardless, they are one of the most valuable populations. The elderly are not just a piece of history, but they also provide immeasurable joy and meaning to family and community life. They are the teachers of our fathers and mothers, grandchildren, and presidents.  Older people command a wealth of knowledge, skills and experiences by living through situations which would be hard to imagine. They contribute to society by being one of the highest populations of volunteer work and charitable donations.

 

A nation's most important resource is its people, and old people have a place in society. Throughout the ages, old folks have been revered by society for their experience and wisdom.  They have been the living, breathing, and walking encyclopedias of world civilizations. The erudite will always remember Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as the world's greatest teachers who were aged in their own time.  A society devoid of its older generation such as its octogenarians and centenarians would look robotic at best --cold, crude, and downright kindless.

 

 

Z. S. Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Senior Review Editor

California State University, Long Beach