Transhumanists like to talk about immortality, anti-aging, and life-extension. These three ideas are often used interchangeably and for most debates, such as over issues of Malthusian catastrophes or existential boredom, they apply. But what if we only conquered the middle of the three; what if we could only slow the aging process, but not add years to our lives? What would the world look like? What would life be like?
Unlike life-extension or immortality, anti-aging is merely research into technology and medicine that would prevent our bodies from beginning to decay and shut down, albeit very slowly, after about the age of twenty-five. Let us presume that science discovers the trigger that starts the slow version of aging, but is unable to find the trigger that causes the degradation we see in someone who is approaching the 80 year mark.
In short, my question is: what if there was no middle age? What if you turned 21 and then maintained that youth, vigor, and mental flexibility for the next fifty years? You would still know you were probably going to die around age 70 or 80. You would still know that you weren’t immortal or invulnerable. You would still die at approximately the average age for a human being in the developed world. The aging/longevity debate suddenly changes: Malthusian horrors are irrelevant; the “old guard” will still die off, leaving room for youthful ideas and change; mental problems of super long life (existential boredom, cynicism, etc) are gone; and “nursing home” time will remain what it is now.
So what you have is people living a normal life-span, but with none of the physical ailments of middle-age. Problems such as a risk of pregnancy complication or birth defects after the age of 35 would be gone in women, meaning that a couple could wait until they were in their late forties before having a family with no risk of complications. Age related diseases, particularly cancers, would be as likely for someone at the age of sixty as someone at the age of twenty. All the aches, pains, strains, creeks, wrinkles, gray hairs, saggy skin, and countless other tiny problems associated with aging either wouldn’t exist or would be dramatically slowed to the point that a sixty-five year old might look like your average thirty-year old today. This isn’t an issue of pure vanity, but simple biological signaling. Youth is often immediately visible, but what if it wasn’t?
The first, and perhaps weirdest thought that came to mind is how this would affect the dating scene. Whether or not it’s right, the prevailing trend is for men to date younger women – this trend works in both directions, with women often preferring older men and men often preferring younger women. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, endorsing this norm. In fact, I think it’s likely that a scenario in which age was not immediately visible would do wonders for balancing out the sexes.
As it stands, a man can largely eschew serious relationships/family in his early years to establish a career, earn wealth and reputation, and then begin a family with a woman significantly his junior without much controversy. There are myriad exceptions and reasons why this isn’t a great idea, of course, but my point is that a woman doing the same thing is almost inconceivable, both because of beauty norms (though it seems “cougars” are having a moment) and because older mothers simply have more biological complications. People wouldn’t have to focus so much on dating someone their “age” but instead someone their “maturity” and who is in the same life stage as they are.
Here is the kicker. In a society where everyone looks like a twenty-year old, vanity would become significantly less important. Instead of desperately trying to prevent aging or fight its effects, people could just do their thing. A twenty-year old who fell for a fifty-year old wouldn’t have to worry about people raising their eyebrows as they walked hand-in-hand down the street because no one could tell. Ever notice that, no matter how ridiculously a twenty-something dresses, they can usually pull it off, but not so for a sixty-something?
Aging almost mandates we “mature” at a certain rate in a certain way. So what if we didn’t? Sex-drive wouldn’t flag, mental flexibility would remain high, health care costs would plummet and that would all be great, but on top of it one wouldn’t instantly be discriminated against for looking too old or too young. My little thought experiment exposes just how much truck visible-aging has with other forms of signaling, like wealth and fashion.
Even if we slowed aging a bit, say, stretching genuine youthful vigor and health into our forties, it would be a huge boon for society. There have got to be a hundred variables and possible effects this would have on society that I left out, but that’s what I’ve got at the moment.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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