Most married people have spoken the words “until death do us part,” usually expecting to enjoy a wonderful half a century or so with their beloved. But if humans could live to 150 years, as many scientists now think might be possible, the world will be a very different place, and it won’t just mean more time with one’s spouse. There is also a greater possibility of switching partners.
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In her 79 fabulous years, actress Elizabeth Taylor was married eight times to seven husbands. If she had lived a longer and healthier life, that number might have been even higher. While it’s true Taylor was an anomaly, it turns out that as more time becomes available, mating behaviors do begin to shift. In 1950, the average age at first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women. Today, with longer life expectancies, average age at first marriage is 28 for men and 26 for women. Those numbers will likely climb higher as women gain more control over their fertility with reproductive technologies such as IVF, egg freezing, and ovary and embryo transplants. The ability to have children at much later ages means that it will be possible for siblings to be separated by many decades. A woman might have one child when she is 22 and another when she is 62, and the relationship between those siblings might be less like traditional siblings and more like that between an uncle and nephew.
Dynamics will change in the workplace too. It’s possible to imagine a scenario where a 25-year-old is put on the same corporate team as a healthy 100-year-old. The cultural difference between the two workers may be stark, which means that the ability to co-operate with diverse groups of people will be a highly sought after when hiring new employees.
As people work longer and spend money longer, the economy will grow. Health begets wealth, and according to University of Chicago economists Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel, gains in life expectancy over the last decade (30 years) are worth over $1.2 million to the current population. They also found that “from 1970 to 2000, gains in life expectancy added about $3.2 trillion per year to national wealth.” While these numbers are staggering, what might be more important is the issue of longevity gains as a competitive advantage.
In a paper titled “The Health and Wealth of Nations,” Harvard economist David Bloom and Queen’s University economist David Canning explain that, based on the available research, if there are “two countries that are identical in all respects, except that one has a five-year advantage in life expectancy,” then the “real income per capita in the healthier country will grow 0.3–0.5% per year faster than in its less healthy counterpart.” These percentages might look small, but they are actually quite significant, since it is known that between 1965 and 1990 countries experienced an average per capita income growth of 2% per year, and Bloom and Canning’s numbers are based on only a five-year longevity advantage. If a country had a 30 or 50-year advantage then having a longer-lived population could generate enormous differences in economic prosperity.
Some may worry about a population explosion if lifespans extend. While that’s a reasonable reaction, the trends on population growth currently point in the other direction. Another objection to longer lives is that somehow it will make life less noble or rich. The opposite is true. Being able to spend more time with friends and family, innovating, career building, exploring, learning, and helping others would increase the richness of our lives. The goal is more healthy time, which will lead to greater wealth and prospects for happiness. That is one of the noblest causes of all.