News & Views » News Feature

Death Shortage?

Skimpy evidence driving "greedy geezers" theory


Should you be worried about an impending "death shortage"? The alleged shortage of corpses will be caused by biomedical advances that will dramatically increase life expectancy over the course of the 21st century, according to Charles Mann in The Atlantic Monthly. "Stem cell treatments, telomerase amplifiers, somatic gene therapies — the list of potential longevity treatments incubating in laboratories is startling," writes Mann.

Even the notoriously cautious President's Council on Bioethics acknowledges, "It seems increasingly likely...that something like age-retardation is in fact possible."

Is this cause for celebration? Absolutely not, because as Mann warns, successful longevity treatments "will force the world to confront a situation no society has ever faced before: an acute shortage of dead people."

What are some of the baleful problems that this alleged death shortage will cause? "From religion to real estate, from pensions to parent-child dynamics, almost every aspect of society is based on the orderly succession of generations," declares Mann. "Every quarter century or so children take over from their parents — a transition as fundamental to human existence as the rotation of the planet about its axis."

As a consequence of the looming unnatural prolongation of the ancient cycle of birth and death, Mann outlines an improbably dystopian vision of greedy geezers growing ever richer as their deserving children languish in poverty.

"In the past, twenty- and thirty-year-olds had the chance of sudden windfalls in the form of inheritances," writes Mann. "Some economists believe that bequests from previous generations have provided as much as a quarter of the start up capital for each new one — money for college tuitions, new houses, new businesses." Apparently, Mann thinks that parents today only invest in their children — pay for piano lessons, braces, college tuitions, or make them partners in the family business — because they know they're going to die soon. What makes him think that aging decimillionaires in the future won't have any money to spare for their indigent children? And just where does Mann think geezers will be investing their money so that they can take advantage of the magic of compound interest that he says will make them so rich? It's got to go into, yes, new businesses, new technologies, and so forth.

Apparently, Mann thinks that parents today only invest in their children - pay for piano lessons, braces, college tuitions, or make them partners in the family business - because they know they're going to die soon.

Mann treats economics as a zero sum game. Evidently he thinks that there are a limited number of jobs available and the only way for a youngster to get one is for someone older to die. Consequently, Mann concludes, "it will not be feasible for most of tomorrow's nonagenarians and centenarians to stay at their desks, no matter how fit and healthy they are." Does Mann never wonder just how it was that the United States created tens of millions of new jobs as our population grew and grew older over the course the last century?

As if stiffing the young weren't bad enough, Mann then worries that long-lived women and men will choose not to bear children at all. Why? Because many will indulge in a prolonged quasi-adolescent period of education, exploration and career shifting in light of the fact their lives will extend to 200 years or so. Mann believes that such long-lived people won't settle down until their, gasp, 40s to the serious business of being adults — an age which Mann claims will remain "the worst time to have children." Why? Because these long-lived people will just be embarking on meaningful careers and won't have the time to devote to the rearing of children. A lot of twenty-somethings with kids today will get a bitter chuckle over Mann's image of them just floundering about finding themselves before settling down serious work in their 40s.

Another reason Mann worries about the reproductive prospects of future long-lived forty-something quasi-adults is that he evidently thinks that biotechnological advances in reproduction will be forever stuck at 2005 levels. For example, he apparently believes that long-lived 40-year-olds will still experience menopause as their ancestors did. However, if technology can enable people to live longer, healthier lives, it seems likely that future advances will enable women to keep their eggs fresh for much longer too. Even if that turns out to be impossible, women in the future will likely be able to freeze ovarian tissue and reinstall it years or decades later when they want to have kids. In any case, women in their sixties are already giving birth to healthy children. This kind of thing could become common in the future when women will be biologically still only in their 20s and 30s when they are a century old.

In keeping with his worries about how longevity corrodes family values, Mann also warns that long-lived people will get bored with their marriage partners and get divorced. So what? Considering that about half of marriages in the United States already end in divorce this isn't a novel problem. Perhaps future marriage contracts could have renewal clauses after so many years.

Mann also fears that longevity treatments could bankrupt the economy. He makes a quick and dirty (probably overstated) calculation that new longevity treatments might be as expensive as HIV drug treatments are today at about $15,000 per person annually. (Of course, keep in mind that one day HIV drugs will go off patent and they will cost less than $300 per year.) But taking Mann's estimate at face value, he calculates that 80 million oldsters receiving $15,000 worth of longevity treatments would cost $1.2 trillion per year. Mann then quotes Centers for Disease Control analyst James Lubitz as saying that $1.2 trillion is "the kind of number that gets people's attention." Yawn. Oh, sorry, I'll wake up. Then Mann suggests that in order to avoid class warfare along a lifespan divide such huge new costs would have to be borne by the government since every citizen, rich and poor, would demand access to longevity treatments. Assuming he's right, how worried should we be?

Perhaps $1.2 trillion may get the attention of someone who is living in today's $11 trillion dollar economy. However, in 2003 the Employment Policy Foundation (EPF) issued a study which calculated that the United States economy would grow to $128 trillion by 2077. So if the EPF calculations are correct, longevity treatments for 80 million healthy oldsters would cost less than 1 percent of GDP in 70 years. Let's assume an unrealistic scenario in which every one of an estimated 480 million Americans alive in 2075 would require $15,000 worth of longevity treatments annually — the total bill would be $7.2 trillion — that's still less than 7 percent of projected GDP in 2077. So in the long run, the affordability of longevity treatments doesn't seem like a big issue.

Mann limns a future in which the world is divided between nations "top heavy with the old" whose economies are sluggishly losing out in competition with poorer nations filled with eager, creative young people.

"In a reverse brain drain, the Chinese coast guard might discover half-starved American postgraduates stuffed into the holds of smugglers' ships," suggests Mann.

Really? China? American Enterprise Institute scholar Nick Eberstadt points out that current demographic trends imply that by 2025 China's median age will be higher than the United States'. So which country will suffer from econosclerosis? Will there be econosclerosis at all? After all, it's the countries with the youngest populations that have the slowest economic growth rates right now. For examples see the vibrant economies of Africa, where the median age is 20. Contrary to Mann's econosclerosis thesis, Yale economist William Nordhaus finds that the huge increase in average life expectancy in the United States, from forty-seven years in 1900 to seventy-seven years today, has been responsible for about half the increase in our standard of living.

Mann's worst prediction is that future centenarians "may well feel nostalgia for the long-ago days of three score and ten." Slowing the Grim Reaper down will undoubtedly create some transition problems, but Mann has not identified any insuperable ones. The only shortage that he has demonstrated is the characteristic shortage of imagination that so many other pro-mortalists exhibit.

Ronald Bailey is Reason Magazine's science correspondent. His new book is Liberation Biology: A Moral and Scientific Defense of the Biotech Revolution.

Add a comment