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)?