by Patrick Cox
October 8, 2015

Life extension technologies have been so successful that we are only just beginning to understand their impact. Longer life expectancies are the most obvious consequence, but reduced birthrates are also a consequence of living longer. Though the linkage between these two phenomenon is not well understood, it is statistically unassailable and therefore the subject of considerable academic research. There is another consequence of life extension that’s been pondered far less. I’m talking about the increase in the average age of populations as people live longer and have fewer babies. Just like each of us individually, society is getting older.

In 1950, just before I was born, the average age of an American was about 28 years. Today, it’s about 40. This alone ought to make us think. At 28, I was quite different from my 40-year-old self. Similar changes in median ages are going on across the globe, as this chart from the UN Population Division shows.

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Though we can only guess at the cultural impacts of societal aging, I’m quite sure they will be manifold and enormous. Mostly, I’ve written about easily measurable policy problems such as the increases in health care costs associated with older populations. There will, however, be many changes beyond the obvious budgetary issues. I find these impacts more interesting, in part because we’ve never seen such a change take place before. Society is truly moving into new territory.

We’ve seen before, however, that demographics can color the character of entire societies. The most obvious example is the Baby Boom, the explosion in birth rates that took place after a time of abstinence imposed by the rigors of World War II. Though birthrates were already falling rapidly before the war, they experienced a temporary, but dramatic increase at the end of the conflict. The following chart of the Baby Boom from the Wikipedia entry shows this clearly.

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Though this chart represents births per 1000 population in the US, the same demographic event happened more or less the same way in many parts of the world. In the United States, the Baby Boom produced a population cohort of nearly 80 million people bracketed by far fewer younger and older people who would normally moderate the age groups’ influence on markets, politics, fashion, and other aspects of society. As a result, the Boomer experience has had an outsized influence on culture for over half a century. In many ways, it still does.

I suspect that the increasing average age of the population will eventually result in even greater impacts than those that came about due to the Baby Boom. While I don’t pretend to know exactly what a much older population’s culture will be like, I do have questions.

I wonder, for example, how a much older population—that is more occupied with its own health and mortality—will deal with children. One possibility is that increasingly rare births will increase society’s concern and appreciation for the very young. Another possibility is that older people will be preoccupied with their own waning lives.

Of course, there will be a range of behaviors rather than a single personality profile. Some older people will adopt the role of doting surrogate grandparents, protecting and caring for the interests of the young. Others will be yelling “get off my lawn” and shaking their fists. I’ve already seen signs of this kind of attitude in large retirement communities that happily restrict the intrusive presence of children. My question, however, is about the aggregate impact; and I really don’t know what it will be.

I also wonder if society’s attitude about the future, specifically risk taking, will be significantly altered as we all get older. On the one hand, we all know older people whose moods and attitudes about the future have turned dark and pessimistic. Some of us tend to project our own looming extinction onto the world at large. Throughout history, in fact, there have always been those who have undergone old-age transformations and decided that the long rise of civilization has finally halted, just as they are personally nearing the end of life.

On a less dramatic level, we see this trend manifested in the certainty that all the great music has already been made. My father’s father believed that Scott Joplin and his cohorts were the last great musicians. He rejected the music of Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller that my father loved. My father seemingly learned nothing from this experience and never accepted that the Beatles made any music worth hearing. Now, I hear echoes of this attitude in Boomers complaining that there is no great music being made today. In thirty or forty years, I’m quite certain that music that is popular today will be playing in hotel lobbies while parents complain about the junk their kids listen to. With smaller populations of young people, I wonder what impact we’ll see on music.

Youth tend to be more creative, optimistic, and hopeful. On the other hand, young people also tend to believe they are smarter than their parents’ generation, despite a youthful deficit of real life experience and perspective. This can breed attitudes that are essentially reactionary, seemingly tailored just to differ from the prior generation’s norms. Over time, however, people tend to grow more conservative with age.

Ironically, there is a lot of evidence that older people are actually getting smarter. The fact that the last few generations have increasing IQs is generally described as the Flynn effect. This recent study shows the Flynn effect in Germany and England, but it has been observed globally. At the same time, SAT scores among young adults have been falling for ten years, though I’m not convinced that SAT scores actually reflect intelligence or the ability to succeed. Regardless, the intergenerational balance of power has only just begun to shift. How this all works out is far from clear, but the driving force behind our biggest changes, life extending technologies, is intensifying.

Originally published in Transformational Technologies.