Indefinite lifespans might halt progress – What can we do to change that?

The following is a post I’ve written about 10 months ago. It got some reactions on Facebook, but most of them were dismissive. Few have acknowledged the need to invest some serious thought into the issues that this post raises:

There are efforts to defeat ageing and make people live indefinitely in best health. Meaning they will continue living on for hundreds of years and more while looking like twentysomethings. If we assume that this is what will actually happen, then we got a huge problem (the following may be an incorrect simplification, but that’s only to point of the full extent of the problem):

These youthful looking old people will continue to accumulate power, wealth and influence, because they have both their huge life experience and youthful health at the same time. They will regularly outcompete the “newcomers” in their fields. They will hang around to dictate how things are done, which policies are implemented, and which new ideas are to be discarded (all of them). They will not contribute to societal process, because they represent the persistent undying establishment. They won’t have any incentive to change things, because they profit immensely from how things are set up already. And they won’t be convinced by arguments for change, because they are so fixed in their old ways of thinking that they will not even consider their opinions. Also, there are good reasons for that resistance: First of all, they can lose a lot by changing their opinion. They might lose their reputation, their influence, and their wealth if they join the reformers who want to create progress. And they would have to confront the inconvenient thought that things are not already perfect as they are already.

Up until now these problems have been solved by old people dying away and making room for the ideas and thoughts of a younger generation. When people stop dying consistently, this defence mechanism against societal stagnation falls away.

We will end up in a totally stratified society lead by a ruthless gerontocratic elite. New ideas will be suppressed, because they will make the elite feel uneasy. Uprisings may occur, and they may even be successful, but they won’t solve the fundamental problem. They will only lead to a new elite that will establish a tyrannical regime.

So, we need to find solutions to this basic problem. How do we create systems that enable continued progress in a situation when you can’t count on old ideas dying out with their bearers?

But let me first counter some potential counterarguments against my sinister prognosis:

“But when people are youthful again, they will become more mentally flexible again, because their brains will be rejuvenated, too.”

Theoretically, this could happen, but this argument is based on the assumption that it’s actually the ageing of the brain that causes mental inflexibility. Instead, it could be very likely that mental inflexibility just results out of an entrenched position within the status quo. People spend a lot of resources to enter and maintain a specific role within society. They invest so much effort that they rationalize their own role and the whole setup of society in order not to have to doubt that what they have done is right. Doubt is inconvenient. By rationalizing and idealizing the status quo, once they arrive in a reasonably convenient role in society, they remove the inconvenience of doubt. They don’t have a real incentive to leave the comfort zone which they have created with such a high energy investment in the first place.

“Superior new ideas will be accepted simply because they are inherently better than inferior old ideas”

This can only work if people are actually mentally flexible enough to entertain the thought that their old ideas may be wrong. And that’s not necessarily the case. It implies admitting to oneself and to others than one has adhered to flawed ideas – with all the negative consequences that came with that. This is why new revolutionary ideas are always rejected. Those who invested into the truth of the old ideas have great incentives to stick to them and great disincentives to adopt the new ideas.

“The conclusion of your hypothesis is that we should reject longevity research. This is an unacceptable conclusion, so your hypothesis must be wrong, and everyone must reject it”.

First of all that’s a typical fallacy and a typical psychological phenomenon. Hypotheses are rejected because their conclusions feel unacceptable.
Additionally, the first sentence is wrong: It is not true that the conclusion of my hypothesis is that we should reject longevity research. Instead, we simply need to find intelligent ways to avoid societal stagnation. We still got plenty of time to think about solutions to be core problem. But the sooner we find good solution, the better. Solving these problems dissolves weighty counterarguments against longevity research!

So, which mechanisms can we use to support progress when we have to coexist with indefinitely living old people (or even are the old people)?


Well, first of all let me say that I totally agree with you, we definitly need to give this some thought. I think that those counterarguments that they presented against you are fallacious since they ignore basic human psychology.

This question of weather there can be progress in a society in which humans are immortal is a major theme in Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire. This novel depicts a future in which a large part of the galaxy is ruled by an interstellar empire wich is headed by an immortal emperor which is treated like a God (the “Risen Emperor”) and administered by a small elite made of immortal people (simply called the Risen). 500 years before the story starts, the Risen Empire was the Galaxy’s dominant superpower, but now it’s stagnant due to it’s leaders’ unwillingness to innovate. They are slowly being surpassed by other powers, such as the Rix, a cyborg cult which is dedicated to spreading advanced AIs all across the universe.

There are 2 main political forces in the Imperial Senate: the Loyalist Party (aka The Greys) and the Secularist Party (aka The Pinks). The first one is a defender of the status quo, supporting the Risen’s rule and the cult of the Emperor, while the second one is opposed to all this and aims to put an end to gerontocracy and restore progress in society.

The Pinks intend to do that by barring the Risen’s access to posistions of power. In other words, they are OK with people leaving for ever but they won’t allow old people to dominate society forever. A 500 years old person can perfectly be alive and well, living a happy and comfortable life, but he shouldn’t hold any important office in the government or in the board of a big company or organization.

I think that the Pinks’ solution is a pretty good one and I don’t see any other way of keeping the flame of progress alive in an unitary society in which people are immortal, but things may change if we consider the option of a Fractal Society.

We could allow old people to remain in control of some societal niches provided that they grant some of their resources to young people so that they can start their own niches (you know, like a colony somewhere in a Jupiter moon). Of course that would be plenty of conflict between these niches, but this may be our best option anyway.


I think we need to go deeper here. It’s probably not about age, or about having indefinite lifespans. We should primarily focus on the conditions for progress, and only secondary on how indefinite lifespans affect those conditions.

So, let’s start with a simple definition of progress. Progress is positive change. What is positive? Well, that depends on the preferences and values of people. What constitutes progress for one person can be seen as regress by another one. But no matter what, progress always implies change, so a society in which no change happens, can’t experience progress by definition. Therefore, one condition for progress is that society allows change to happen, or alternatively is powerless to stop change from happening on its own.

Another condition is that some people see the world as imperfect and want to change it in some way. But they also need the power to change the world in the way they want it to change.

Let’s summarize those conditions:

  1. Openness to change: Society has to allow change to happen in some way
  2. Subjective imperfection: Some members of society need to see the world as imperfect
  3. Power: Those who want to change the world to the better need the power to do so

If any of those conditions fails, then progress will be stopped. Progress is the antithesis to an eternal order. If we were is a super distant future in which everyone could examine the world in greatest detail and got to the natural conclusion that things can’t get better, then fine, in that case we actually won’t need any further progress. But that’s certainly not a state we can reach soon. And it’s definitely not a state that we are living in right now. So, that is not a likely “failure mode”.

A more likely failure mode is that people get “brainwashed” to believe that our world is the best we can live in. An even more sinister option is that people brainwash themselves to believe that their lives are perfect, when they actually aren’t. Why would they do so? Perhaps because they don’t have the power to actually improve their situation!

So, we need to provide people with power, if we don’t want them to resign and accept whatever imperfect state of affairs they are presented with. The universal autonomy that people possess in a fractal society grants people that power: They can choose to join or create any kind of society they want to live in. A fractal society definitely allows for change.

Does this lead to the conclusion that a fractal society is the best guarantee to ensure progress, no matter whether people have limited or indefinite lifespans? It really seems to be that way. The rate of progress was intense in the ancient Greek city states. In some sense, they might be seen as precursors to a fractal society.

Now, the challenge lies in envisioning how a fractal society would actually operate.

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you are right, this is a problem we already have. we can observe what happens in our society for example concerning the UBI : the old people struggled decades with wagework they don´t really like to make a living. they are the majority of people, who lived their life in a constant, suppressed form of suffering, enduring the slavery and heteronomy every day with the help of the belief, that this way of living is an inevitable stranglehold of life itself with no solution.

yes, and more. it helps much to maintain emotional wellbeing when you convince yourself that you do the right thing with your lifestyle. every employee has to tell himself “i am a good person, because i work hard and do the best” and for some their money is their proof and reward and for others the survival of their familiy. even if their company ruins the lives of so many people, and destroys the environment, they believe, they do a good deed. and this majority of older people really gets furious when they imagine that their children or grandchildren would be much more free with the UBI than they were their whole life! even the thought is painful for them, because it not only proves their believes wrong, it also means that they feel, they suffered for nothing. but there are exceptions from this majority. and it only depends on what they believe and feel. many old people might claim that they want younger generations to live a better life than they lived, but only few mean what they say. those are the exceptions who don´t feel pain and envy and who believe that they suffered for progress and a better life for following generations. but this mindset is only possible for people who kept their suffering and discontent alive ( maybe this is part of your second condition: “subjective imperfection”) without numbing it with what you call “brainwash”–> “i am a good person, because i work hard , i do a good deed…etc…”.
but there are more psychological ways to block progress. if you learn one way to do things, it could also be painful to be told, that there is a very much easier method to achieve the same goal, or that your work is not needed anymore because machines could do your job much better. the majority of people feels useless, the exceptional people feel relieved. but they are the ones who always believe that there is more to life than their job and they learned much more than the mere skills, their job required. people, who only possess abilities for one job will be devastated to be replaced, because now they are old and without competence and they could not teach anybody their abilities because the technological development turned the situation into something “perverse”( from their perspective): if those old people want to contribute to the world again, they will have to be the pupils again and the young will be their teachers! many old people can not stand a situation like that because then they would feel much more insufficient than they ever felt in life since they were children.
no matter if we talk about a society with indefinite lifespans or our current society, everbody is in danger to develop a mindset that could block progress. and it is not only the problem of old mindsets of people in power, it suffices if they are the majority.
what would we feel, if future generations would abandon schools and universities and books because they could learn everything that way in the movie “matrix” neo learns martial arts, so they learn in minutes what once needed years and within hours, that took a lifetime to learn…wouldn´t we envy them ? what, if they abandon grades and competition and only focus on to learn what is the most fun to learn and also do, what is the most fun to do? wouldn´t we have the feeling that they destroy our culture and our heritage and that there must be something wrong with this lifestyle? wouldn´t we be relieved if they found out that our style to learn things had some “pros” (for example was more profound) … and thankful, when they decide, not to demolish every univerity and keep some libraries?

but with all my deliberations i probably only scatched the surface of your first condition for progress: