Live Long, Be Wise

People are living longer, and that is undoubtedly good news -- at least to those who are living longer. But the longevity revolution, as it's now being called, is a huge and complex social transition, and we really have no idea of where it's taking us. It will generate some huge problems -- particularly around the differences of life expectancy in different parts of the world -- and may bring some pleasant surprises. If the developmental psychologists are correct, a lot of people who grow older will also grow up to become more effective, responsible human beings.

The basic numbers are striking: According to a recent article in Science magazine by a pair of demographers from Duke University and Cambridge University, life expectancy has more than doubled worldwide over the past two centuries -- from roughly 25 years to about 65 for men and 70 for women. In about six decades, the researchers say, reaching 100 will be about as commonplace as reaching 70 is today.

How far will it go? There's now a debate among the experts, between those who expect that at some point we will run into natural limits on how long an individual body and mind can survive and those who doubt that any such natural limits exist. Some now go so far as to predict an era of "functional immortality" in which life expectancy becomes, for all practical purposes, infinite. In this long-range scenario, people will live forever unless their lives are ended by some sort of accident or by a conscious decision to die.

The troubling question is: Which people?

In the United States and other wealthier countries, average life expectancy now is in the high 70s. In Japan and Andorra, it is in the low 80s. But in several African countries, such as Malawi and Zambia, it is around 37. Even with a major intensification of development and public health activities internationally, it seems dangerously likely that the longevity gap will grow rather than close in the years ahead. The picture is bleak and it's getting more so all the time. In developed countries, life expectancy is currently increasing by three months a year, while it remains about the same in the poorest regions.

On the brighter side, one of the most obvious and interesting questions about the longevity revolution -- one rarely asked -- is whether more old age will also bring more psychological maturity. Is there any reason to believe that people who grow older will also grow up -- become deeper, wiser, more morally responsible, more capable of dealing with the complexities of modern life?

One person who thinks so is Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, a leading scholar in the field of developmental psychology and author of "In Over Our Heads," a study of how people develop progressively more complex levels of consciousness -- including different value systems -- over the course of a lifetime. At the end of the book, he asks what might happen if people are given an additional generation to live. He answers: "My candidate: a qualitatively new order of consciousness."

Kegan didn't elaborate on that tantalizing suggestion, but it is quite clear what he was suggesting -- that the longevity revolution might bring a significant increase in the sum total of human wisdom, something the world clearly needs. With luck, some of these older and wiser people may even figure out what to do about the unfortunate millions who don't live long enough to achieve their potential.

Walt Truett Anderson ( waltt@well.com) is the Associate Editor of PNS and author of "All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization" (Westview Press, 2001)..

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