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This chapter is from the book

Social challenges and promises

Assuming that science and medicine deliver the benefits that many hope for, society will face a host of challenges for which it is not well prepared. These range from economic to moral and cultural problems, as we briefly discuss in this section. As longevity becomes more real, policymakers and public opinion leaders will increasingly force a debate about the moral and ethical issues posed by an inverted age pyramid. Bioethicists and other opinion leaders have raised several cautions about investing massive societal resources in life extension.11 First, the notion of a finite, staged life cycle is essential to being and feeling human. Just as an arrested childhood can hamper social development, disturbing the natural rhythm of life or making it infinite might be dehumanizing. Aging is not a disease, they argue, but a normal human development. A second argument made is that family relations would be perturbed and complicated if five or more generations were alive at one time. In many ways, age is relational, defined by our roles as child, adolescent, young adult, sibling, parent, and grandparent. Extending life could upset the many social institutions that are currently tied to age, such as childbearing, schooling, military or civic duty, marriage, retirement, prison sentences, career paths, or savings habits.

A third argument concerns the social injustices caused by an older population, in terms of the disproportionate health and retirement resources consumed by these economically less productive individuals. A large senior cohort would have increased political clout, thanks to their voting powers and higher wealth levels, resulting in a biased agenda for healthcare, retirement facilities, and pensions. In addition, uneven access to life extension opportunities across the socioeconomic spectrum would likely raise moral concerns, especially if a small privileged elite emerges for whom longevity is an exclusive luxury good. A fourth argument is that the quest for longevity will lead to genetic manipulations that could change our human essence, including the slippery slope of eugenics. We stand at the threshold of an unprecedented era in which humans can change their own genes, and hence redefine what it means to be human. Unfortunately, we presently lack the regulatory oversight and moral compass to wisely navigate the technological terrain.12

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