How would society change if we cured aging, and people could have as many healthy years of life as they wanted?

A common concern is that this would ossify our institutions. The old guard would never die off, and so would never be replaced by young bloods. This could threaten progress across the board, from governance to physics. If “science advances one funeral at a time,” what happens when the rate of funerals plummets?

It’s a real concern. But here are three reasons why curing aging could help progress:

  1. Population. One of the greatest threats to long-term progress may be a slowdown in global population growth. We need more brains to keep pushing science and technology forward. Yet right now, many wealthy nations have fertility rates below replacement levels. Curing aging would help temporarily by lowering the mortality rate. It could help permanently if people decide to have more children, on average. That might happen if longer lifespan means people feel they have time for both children and a career. (Remember that fully curing aging means maintaining reproductive health for all those years.)
  2. Burden of knowledge. There is a hypothesis that as knowledge grows, it takes longer to reach the frontier, and so individual researchers have less time to contribute advancements. They are also forced to specialize—but breakthroughs often come from making connections across far-flung disciplines. If individuals had much longer lifespans, it would be no problem for them to spend 30 or 40 years just learning, before making major contributions. And you could spend another 10 or 20 years picking up a couple more specialties in disparate areas.
  3. Long-term thinking. How would people’s thinking change if they felt they were going to live 150, 300, even 1,000 years or more? The very long-term becomes much more personal. Posterity is something you’re going to be around for.

I still think the “old guard” problem is real, and we’d have to come up with new mechanisms to address it. (Perhaps influential positions would institute a mandatory retirement age of 350.) But there are other factors to consider, and it’s not clear what the net impact would be.

(Not that this is an argument for or against curing aging! Ultimately, the knock-down argument for curing aging is that death is bad. In light of that, other considerations pale into insignificance.)

This essay was originally a Twitter thread, and was inspired by an online discussion about the Foresight Institute’s book-in-development, Gaming the Future.

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Also on the old guard problem: Let's say you're one of the luminaries of a field, and you have a lot invested in one particular approach or theory for doing things—maybe you invented this approach and you remain one of the best in the world at it.  Now suppose there's a new approach that shows strong signs of being better than the one you're invested in.

If your career is going to end "soon" due to age, then taking the time to learn the new approach and become really good at it—as good as you currently are with your approach—may take up a substantial portion of the remainder of your career.  In that case, just from a calculated-risk perspective, it may be in your interest to double down on your current approach even at times when the new approach is clearly the right choice for newcomers.  But if you expect your career to last another 200 years, then it's much more likely in your interest to keep up with the times.

"Approach" is a very general term here.  It might describe "experimental method and type of equipment used", "sub-area of study", "hypothesized method of treatment of a disease", "programming language and editor used", and lots of other possibilities.

A few thoughts about the old guard problem:

In a population without changes in lifespan, the median birthtime will increase by one year for every year that passes. E.g. say for simplicity that life expectancy is 80 years and noone died before 40, then the median birth year in 2020 is 1980, and 2030 it is 1990 and so on. If life expectancy increases, this with go slower. I dont know the numbers, but I would think median birthtime increases with 10-11 months per year in the developed world today. If people stopped dying and new people were born at constant rate, median birthtime would still be increasing with around 6 months a year. So in a democracy, I would expect moral development to continue, although at a somewhat slower rate.

Of course, if we look at the birthtime of the 10% oldest, that would only increase with around 1/10 year per year, so there might develop an old elite. Still, people born before, say, 2100 would become a smaller and smaller minority, and the same can be said for any other year.

I still think the “old guard” problem is real, and we’d have to come up with new mechanisms to address it. (Perhaps influential positions would institute a mandatory retirement age of 350.)

I was thinking about this the other day, but from a slightly different perspective. Consider trust in the society. If a country goes through a civil war, or maybe a period of a state collapse, the people are - based on their experience - less trusting of strangers and maybe even willing to take advantage of a defenseless stranger. The prospects for cooperation (and therefore societal progress) are not great. One is likely to see clique formation, tribal thinking, corruption.

Now, new generation doesn't have the civil war experience (or a street gang experience, or whatever). It is generally more trusting. They are able to cooperate on a higher level, but the old generation is distrustful, considers the youngsters to be dangerously naive and throws a wrench into the machine. And the longer the average length of life is, the slower the process of moving away from zero-sum games to positive-sum games becomes.

The interesting observations are:

  1. Solutions like "retire at 350" are not going to work - you can't retire a person from the society.
  2. The "old guard" problem could be, in theory, solved if the old generation would learn to change their mind, to adjust to the changed conditions on the ground. However, I am not sure how realistic is the unlearning the civil war experience, unlearning of not trusting the people around you.

I want to live a healthy life for as long as I feel like, but in utilitarian terms, the societally active lifespan needs to be commensurate with intelligence. Intelligence + experience -> wisdom, and at some point one's wisdom hits the ceiling and long-living people become a drag and a drain. So, if I were to put more research points toward human life stats, I'd split it roughly evenly between intelligence (without detrimental effects in other areas) and longevity.


Note that no central authority gets to decide this. The way it might really work is, patients apply to be patients at new tech company medical institutes. Their application hash and some details are saved on a major Blockchain. If accepted they are entered as a patient.

After treatment rounds, they go for testing at other institute diagnostic centers to check their mRNA for aging, blood chem, intelligence, etc. These results are also entered to the Blockchain.

Then future patient candidates have data on the true effectiveness of a given treatment. In such a competitive market the winners will develop increasingly effective treatments that improve everything. As there's no tradeoff between lifespan and intelligence - in fact a better method of treatment for aging probably improves both - both would be optimized.

David Gems “The programmatic theory of aging as developed by @Blagosklonny and de Magalhães promises to eventually serve as part of a general framework of understanding aging and the pathophysiology of late-life disease.” “This could at long last provide the field of biogerontology with an effective explanatory paradigm similar to that provided by the germ theory for the study of infectious disease, and the periodic table for chemistry.”

I think this would be on-topic for the EA Forum too!

I can't imagine any scenario where both progress has continued, and physical humans still exist a century or two from now. Software humans will be free from the horrors of aging of course, and all the problems listed above.

Why wouldn't the oldest just monopolize all important positions forever? 

What exactly will a 40 year old in a society of 4000 year olds do other than the least desirable work?

We have 4000 years to find an answer to that.

They weren't rhetorical questions. I am genuinely curious if anyone can post a answer.

It wasn't a rhetorical answer. 4000 years is the length of most of recorded history. There is no possibility or need to answer any question so far out, even leaving AI singularities aside. How about, "what will happen when most people lead vigorous and productive lives into their 80s?"

I don’t quite understand your viewpoint. Do you not believe humans can adjust their beliefs based on projections, forecasts, and/or extrapolations more than a few thousand years into the future?

Humans can adjust their beliefs based on the entrails of slaughtered animals, or the indifferent motions of the heavens. Adjusting them in the direction of reality takes more than that.

A future with 4000-year-olds is at least 4000 years away. We know nothing about what society will look like then. Will there even be such a thing as "work"? Or "40-year-olds"? Or "society"? How big a target in possibility space even is a future society with 4000-year-olds in it?

Humans can adjust their beliefs based on the entrails of slaughtered animals, or the indifferent motions of the heavens.


Adjusting them in the direction of reality takes more than that.


A future with 4000-year-olds is at least 4000 years away.


We know nothing about what society will look like then.

No. We almost certainly do for some basic parameters. Such as:

Lifeforms will continue to generate entropy. 

Lifeforms will continue to agglomerate into larger and more complex entities. i.e. large multicellular organisms such as humans. 

Such organisms will seek to acquire competitive advantages over others.

In this process they will self organize into larger groups.


And that’s with near certainty, assuming there hasn’t been some catastrophic event like a pulsar burst sterilizing this planet. 

Some aspects of the universe we can even know with certainty will be the case even 4000 years from now.

e.g. Stars will continue to provide EM radiation peaking in certain wavelengths which lifeforms will continue to adapt to if they exist. i.e. leaves will remain green. 


A superhuman intelligence should be able to derive from such a basis likely projections for the most probable appearances of society. And act accordingly based on those projections.  

An ordinary human may likewise depending on how prescient and perceptive they are, along with their willingness to expend the effort.

Whether or not anyone currently existing is capable of doing that is unknown, but unknown != impossible.

Will there even be such a thing as "work"? Or "40-year-olds"? 


Or "society"?


How big a target in possibility space even is a future society with 4000-year-olds in it?

Finite. Very large if you include the tails of the distribution, smaller if you consider only the most likely outcomes. 

If you don’t believe it possible for humans to make such projections you could have just wrote that. If you didn’t want to directly answer that’s fine as well, I put this up incase a passing reader got confused.

New fields appear, circumstances change, tools change, and so on; consequently, experience is not a permanent advantage, but is constantly evaporating.  In some fields, how quickly you can learn is more important than how much you already know.  I don't know how much cognitive flexibility in old people will be regained by aging treatments, but even if that problem were reduced to "maintaining flexibility in the presence of long-ingrained habits", I expect that's something that the majority of the population wouldn't be very good at, so by default the young would have some advantages there.

Genetic counseling, embryo selection, and possibly even genetic engineering would tend to make the new generations inherently smarter than the older one.  (They'll want to enhance adults too, but it's easier to enhance a human who hasn't grown up yet, and that will probably remain so for a long time.)  Thus the young, as a group, will have advantages in jobs where that's more important than experience.

Come to think of it, the above applies more generally to fields where there's a relatively low ceiling to how much experience brings you versus natural advantages (I suspect, say, modeling is one such), and those would end up dominated by people with the greatest natural advantages no matter their age.  (And, again, if these advantages get genetically selected for, then they will tend to be dominated by the young as a result.)

It seems reasonably likely that we'd see a need for multi-specialties—we want someone who's very good at subjects/skills A, B, and C all at once.  This may lead to a combinatorial explosion such that it's often possible to find some combination of specialties where you don't have much competition.  (On the one hand, probably most combinations are not useful; on the other hand, which ones are not useful will probably keep changing, so a new combination will become vogue that no one is good at yet.)

Multi-specialties would come with a longer educational period.  A longer educational period would become viable and likely necessary.  (If your career ends at age 65, then continuing to study from age 25 to 45 is throwing away half your career, so the education needs to double your earnings plus pay its costs to be worthwhile; but if your career ends at age 665, then increasing your earnings by 4% is sufficient.)  Today, presumably no one has even tried to develop a curriculum spanning 100 years, because no one would try to take such a course; but as time went on, people would create and improve such curricula, so the young people would be competing with old people who never took those courses.  (Of course, it's possible for older people to continue with education too, and, depending on their planning horizon, some will; but since they can currently earn more, they have a stronger incentive to just keep working, and will take less advantage of the new education.)

Even if education didn't improve or become obsolete over time, presumably one learns faster in education than in industry (otherwise what's the point? (which is a valid question for today's education)), so even if others started thousands of years ahead of you, you could still catch up eventually—assuming you could pay for it.

Why wouldn’t the old timers try to all do the same as well? If we assume technology has advanced to the point where it’s possible to live to age 4000, then I imagine the problem of human cognition would also be solved.

e.g.  the best possible 40 year old human, including their entire nervous system, could be modeled to the atomic level to allow those with access to such resources the ability to negate all the advantages of the young,. Any old timers afraid of being overtaken in developmental rate could fairly trivially self modify at that point to always stay ahead of the curve.

e.g.  the best possible 40 year old human, including their entire nervous system, could be modeled to the atomic level to allow those with access to such resources the ability to negate all the advantages of the young,

If you're setting up someone's entire brain all the way down to the atomic level, that seems to mean every bit of knowledge in their brain is something you're putting there deliberately.  Which means there's no advantage of the old, either—whatever they used to know (and be, for that matter) is completely wiped out by the process you describe.  Nor is there any need for, say, a childhood during which lessons and skills are learned—you'll be constructing fully formed adults whose brains embody those skills, from scratch.

... I guess you say "modeled" rather than "constructed", but I guess that means you're constructing computers that emulate a brain.  Which probably has lots of economic and physical advantages over biological hardware, including perfect save-states and the ability to spin up perfect clones of yourself at a moment's notice, and quite possibly faster execution.  The bigger question would not be "how can the young compete with the old?", but "how can the humans compete with the ems/synths?".

The only internally consistent answer I’ve ever heard to that is that humans cannot compete, without evolving to something we would all likely agree would be non human. Which is why technological advancement beyond a certain point guarantees the extinction of circa 2022 humanity. Though the extinction of 2022 humanity is guaranteed in any possible future.

circa 6022 humans however may be able to outcompete circa 6022 machines though through what means I know not.