Forever Young

What would the world be like if we lived forever?

Before we ponder this intricate hypothetical, let’s answer another question: what is it about old people that makes them old?

Obviously if we’re defining age as the gradual deterioration of the physical form, then the answer is some complex explanation involving DNA and telomeres, but that’s not what we’re discussing today. What we want to know is what biological, experiential and environmental factors cause an old person to feel and act like an old person. Let’s take a look at four traits commonly associated with the elderly.

The first example we’ll look at is speed. Older people tend to walk, talk and drive slower than younger folk. This is likely due the fact that as the body ages, ligaments tighten, joints stiffen and reaction time slows. This decrease in speed is clearly caused by the aging of the physical body.

The second trait is memory. Seniors are known to have trouble recollecting the past. While it’s true that older people have more memories to scan through, dementia and the natural deterioration of the brain are the culprits here.

The third example we’ll examine is the inability or unwillingness to adapt. It is well known that the elderly are not generally fond of change and that they struggle to understand modern morality, fashion and technology. This could be caused by a decrease in brain function, but a more likely source is the increase in nostalgia over time. As we age, we tend to view the past more favorably and become increasingly frustrated with modern conventions and inventions.

The final trait is political disposition. Older citizens tend to vote differently and with a different frequency than other sections of the population. This is caused by what is known as the cohort effect – the observation that populations with shared experiences tend to have certain traits in common. So, for example, those who endured the the depression of the 1930s in their youth are more likely to finish the food on their plate, enjoy farming and vote for politicians who are fiscally conservative later in life.

So we clearly have some traits that are caused by physical aging and others that, while rooted in the transition from youth to adulthood, come from merely existing for a long period of time. Before we return to the original question, let’s answer one more: what does living forever look like?

When we attempt to answer this question, many of us imagine a world full of young, healthy and happy individuals, but the cure for death can come in many forms. Here are five possible immortality scenarios:

  1. Mr. Freeze: we find a way to stop the physical effects of aging, but not reverse them. Our bodies no longer age, but we retain the years that we have already accrued.
  2. Death Becomes Her: we discover a way to prevent our bodies from shutting down due to old age, but we cannot prevent our bodies from degenerating.
  3. The Fountain of Youth: we find a way to restore our bodies to their youthful form, and no one ages beyond their prime.
  4. Robocop:  we use technology to modify our minds and bodies to an extent that age becomes irrelevant.
  5. Ghost in the Shell: we discover a way to transport consciousness into machines, shedding our useless organic forms.

Of these five possibilities, the most relevant and feasible is likely among the first three. At first it may appear as though these scenarios are very similar, but whether or not we are returned to our youth or our aging is halted will affect the world in significant ways.

Earlier we discussed some of the differences between the elderly and other demographics. Now imagine that the entire world is comprised of only individuals of the same age. In order to progress, we must have a better understanding of immortality’s effects.

First, we must acknowledge that our perception of age is largely based on physical appearance. Sure, there are those traits that we mentioned earlier, but it’s likely that if a 90-year-old woman was transported into the body of a 20-year-old woman, she would be treated much differently. The fact that romances such as the one between Bella and Edward from the Twilight series do not arouse suspicion reveals just how poor our understanding of age actually is.

In the series, Bella is a 17-year-old high school student who falls in love with Edward, a 106-year-old vampire. Edward became a vampire when he was 17, which means that he appears to be the same age as Bella. Now in the real world, a relationship between a 17-year-old and a 106-year-old is not only illegal, it’s downright unimaginable. Despite this, the relationship initially seems believable because Edward appears to be 17. In actuality, Edward may have more luck finding a suitable wife at a retirement home than a high school.

Now for a moment let’s imagine that there is a group of immortal people who have been alive for 1,000 years. What would they think of modern morals and fashion? What kind of grasp would they have on modern technology? How would they vote? The answers to these questions depend on whether or not we believe that youthful or elderly traits are derived from the age of the physical body we inhabit or from the amount of time that we exist.

Another mystery of immortality is that we don’t know what happens to people when they live beyond a century or so. As we discussed, we tend to become more conservative as we age, unwilling or unable to accept new ideas. If this trend were to continue indefinitely, an ever-aging population may threaten to stamp out political change completely.

It’s also important to remember that we don’t know how the cohort effect would be affected by a population that doesn’t physically age. It’s possible that without maturing past our youth, the window in which shared experiences may affect us is extended indefinitely. Many of us, especially seniors, look back on our youth with nostalgia, but if we’re eternally young, is it even possible to do so?

A final point to consider before we move on: if people lived forever, we would likely need a limit on breeding in order to control the population. This means that there would be few, if any, new humans. This lack of new life may slow the rate of change drastically, for there would be no inquisitive and rebellious youngsters to challenge the establishment. Another potential side effect could be a lack of inspiration and concern for others, since there is no future generation to which we might pass on a better world.

Now let’s explore some possible outcomes if these situations became reality. Here’s a table showing what we will experience based on the immortality scenario and whether or not aging continues to affect us once our bodies have stopped maturing.

Age Type Immortality Type
We Stay How We Are We Get Physically Old We Stay Young
Aging Affects Us We appear as we are now, but we feel and act increasingly old. We appear old, and we feel and act increasingly old. We appear young, but we feel and act increasingly old.
Aging Doesn’t Affect Us We appear, feel and act as we are now. We appear, feel and act old, but aging stops. We appear, feel and act young.

So what would the world be like if we lived forever? Well that depends not only on the means by which we cheat death and whether or not aging continues to affect us, but also on our ideas of what it means to be young or old. Based on these factors, we may be excited or frightened at the concept of immortality.

If, for example, we are all made young, never age and aging doesn’t continue to affect us, then the world’s entire population will be comprised of people that look, feel and act young. For those who are wary of the rebellious and reckless trappings of youth, this might sound like a recipe for disaster. If, however, aging continues to affect us, then we may end up with a whole world that is increasingly fond of the past and skeptical of change. This may cause moral and political shifts to halt and technological innovation to cease.

Now some may argue that the world is not so easily divided into the old and young, pointing to studies that reveal how our views do not become more conservative as we age. However, what is considered a conservative view does change over time, and so time makes conservatives of us all.

In the immortal words of Hartwig Schierbaum, do you really want to live forever?