More than 100 candles decorating a birthday cake could be increasingly common in the 21st century. Humans’ current average life expectancy has already doubled since 1900 to 71.4 years, according to The National. The first person to reach 150 could already be alive, estimates Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of the Sens Research Foundation, while other leading scientists argue that the global age limit is 115 years. French woman Jeanne Calment, born more than a decade before construction started on the Eiffel Tower in 1887,
could have her title as the oldest person in recorded history ‘stolen’ in the next few decades. Calment lived an astonishing 122 years and 168 days until she died in 1997 – the equivalent of a baby born today living to 2140.
But living longer is only half the story – we must also aspire to live well. Achieving this delicate balance calls on the dedication and skills of leaders worldwide. The economic and ethical boxes to ensure safe and sustainable longevity for all in the world’s 196 countries must be ticked. Collaborative national and cross-border effort will be crucial. Living into triple digits could mean dining with your great-great-grandchildren is part of a happy weekly routine – if it is managed correctly.
Living longer must strengthen – not strain – the economic prospects of society. This is especially important at a time when pressure points that relate to our very survivability begin to pulsate. The world’s water-energy-food nexus faces considerable strain as the UN expects the global population to swell by a third to 9.7 billion by 2050. Adding longer-living populations into the mix could spell a double whammy of strain on natural resources and financial robustness. Current forecasts see the need for a 70% increase in food production and water scarcity has been flagged by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as the biggest threat facing the planet. This is a wobbly foundation upon which to heap greater longevity. But positive leadership will mean Thomas Robert Malthus’ (b.1766) warning that overpopulation would diminish the ability of the world to feed itself will remain theoretical.
The economic strain of a longer-living population is also being felt in developed nations. The Lancet detailed how the UK Government will raise the state pension age to 68 years in 2037. When the state pension was first introduced in 1948, average life expectancy for a person aged 65 was 13.5 years – this increased to 19.7 years in 2013-2015.
The cost of medication and care for a more elderly population also needs to be factored into the economic puzzle. The New Scientist details that when the NHS was founded in 1948, nearly 50% of the population died before the age of 65 – now it is just 14%. “It’s a challenge, but it’s not something that should have us quaking in our boots,” said Thomas Kirkwood, Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing, in 2015. Any scenario is manageable if leaders carve out a clear roadmap.
Amid such change, leaders must encourage transparency and facilitate public education programmes on the financial domino effect of our lengthening biological clock. This need not be a negative or scaremongering narrative, but greater knowledge gives people the ability to plot their financial futures. Governments and businesses need coffers that are sufficiently stocked and to be proactive – and not reactive – in their fiscal management. Accessible and robust financial structures, such as private-public partnerships, will be a valuable tool in meeting the intensifying need for efficient, innovative and cost-effective health care. Research published by London-based BMC Medicine highlighted that every additional £1 of public money invested in the UK’s medical research results in the return of 99p of investment from the private sector.
Leaders in government, industry and academia can help youngsters –some of whom may live into the 2100s –to be emotionally and intellectually prepared for what will be an extended stay in the job market. Failing to do so would be the equivalent of a driver of a horse and carriage cart in the early 1900s being expected to understand today’s digital language. The skills and training required are from two different eras. Alarm bells are already ringing when it comes to millennials’ financial security. Poverty is up, employment is down, and college debt is more than five times what it was just 20 years ago, according to Time magazine’s use of the Sightlines Project at the Stanford Centre on Longevity in 2016. Leaders must help quiet the bells; youngsters’ vast potential must be leveraged.
Leaders must also keep ethical norms in check as our zest for experimentation deepens. They must continually ask: how much is too much? Some advancements have more shock value than others. Towards the end of last year, the world's first human head transplant was allegedly carried out on a corpse – connecting the spine, nerves and blood vessels of two people – with plans to soon carry out the procedure on a living patient. The operating team was headed by Dr Xiaoping Ren of Harbin Medical University, China, following the ‘successful’ grafting of a monkey’s head onto another monkey’s body in 2016.
Leaders must also keep a keen ethical eye on how tools under the umbrella of the 4th Industrial Revolution, a shift detailed by Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, are used to turn medical marvels detailed in science fiction novels into viable healthcare.
“By 2045, we will be able to transfer and upload the contents of the human mind to a data centre. Governments must be prepared for these coming changes,” said Mohammed Al Gergawi, the UAE’s Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future and Chairman of the World Government Summit, in February 2018, according to Arab News. Save a complex digital virus, we could live forever – a prospect that would deserve extensive consideration. Also, take a moment to consider the rate of progress of these recent advances against the medical innovations of the 19th and 20th centuries: the first stethoscope was developed in 1816, the X-ray in 1895, penicillin was discovered in 1929 and the mechanical heart in 1952.
Rewiring the ‘code of life’ means leaders need to write a new game plan – yesterday’s rules won’t work tomorrow. Strong and open-minded guidance will ensure that smiles abound as we gather around the table to puff out our birthday candles.