The M-Generation: 500 years of life

Amber was born 100 years after her great-grandmother (Amber’s my granddaughter). As I watch her grow, I wonder, “What will her world be like?”

Amber’s great-grandmother was born in 1896, when the average Canadian lived 47 years. For most, electricity was unknown. Cars were toys of the rich. Airplanes hadn’t moved from the tinkerer’s workbench. Land transportation was by foot, horse, or train.

Canadians farmed or served farmers. Diphtheria, typhoid, pneumonia, polio, and influenza were scourges that decimated families. Infections were a death sentence.

Work was done with muscle power. Two-parent families with many children were the norm. Children were parents’ pension. Oration and print dominated communication.

The world Amber entered in 1996 is different. The average lifespan is 79. Electricity is everywhere. Cars and planes reshaped Canada. Modern medicine wiped out the old scourges.

Brain power replaced muscle power. Government social safety nets replaced the traditional family. Small, single-parent, or blended families are common.

The death knell of distance was sounded by the Internet, a marriage of phones, computers, and TV.
Amber’s world will be dramatically different. She is in the “M-Generation,” named after Methuselah, the Biblical character who lived 969 years. Her lifespan will be 400-1,000 years unless an accident does her in. Here’s why:

  • By 2005, the Human Genome Project will be completed. Humans will know how genes are arranged and what each does. Ten years later, tools will be available to offset genetic mistakes, damage, and malfunctions.
  • The question “What do genes need for sustenance?” will be answered. That question will be answered for each person. For Amber, “diet” will have a new meaning.
  • Telomerase is an enzyme that rebuilds telomeres, the protective caps on chromosomes. Telomerase disappears as people age. With each cell division, telomeres shorten. Cells lose their ability to reproduce. That’s aging. It’s possible to resupply telomerase, restoring youthfulness to old cells.
  • By restricting diets and adding melatonin, scientists already have tripled the lifespan of lab rats. If they do it for rats, they should do it for us, right?
  • When Amber is 13, cloning will provide side-effect-free transplants of any body part.
  • Dr. Joseph Lederberg, U.S. Nobel Prize laureate, says “cardiac diseases will be an artifact of the 20th century” by the time Amber is 25. So will cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and more.
  • Technologies for doing all of this is happening faster than we age.

And there’s more. But think about what that means–a generation of Methuselahs.

Want to live a creaky, crotchety 250 years after 50? Me neither! You won’t have to. The new understanding and tools will ensure youthful vigour to the end. The lab rats mentioned earlier were in perfect health until they died.

What about overpopulation? It won’t happen. The Earth is far from its optimum carrying capacity. The problem is distribution.

Besides, in affluent countries, population growth slows to replacement. Affluence is increasing globally. Without immigration, Canada’s 1.7 fertility rate would result in a population decrease.

Genetic intervention will provide food sources requiring less or no land, tolerate extreme weather conditions, and produce far more. With diets customized to the nutritional needs of each person’s genes, we will all eat less.

But there will be economic and social issues. Here are some of them:

  • What happens to retirement? Will anyone accumulate enough savings to retire at 65 with 250 years ahead? Not likely. What about jobs, careers, advancement, promotion?
    • The work-for-pay world will be turned upside down.
  • What happens to treatment infrastructure dedicated to diseases of aging? Half the cost of treatment occurs in the last six months of life. What if the six months become two or three weeks of hospice care?
    • Many hospitals, hardware, doctors and support services will be obsolete. Think not? The birth control pill did that to obstetric wards!
  • Sports, travel, hobbies, and hospitality will boom. Life insurance will not.
  • Social security programs will be obsolete. Based on an assumed life of 70 years, the programs can’t provide for people who live 300 or 400 years.
  • Young people will compete for jobs with older people. It will be impossible to move from entry-level jobs into leadership positions.

Yep, Amber’s world will be full of challenging opportunities. It will not be TV’s Star Trek” world. Space probes combined with virtual reality technology means that Amber will travel to inner and outer space without leaving home.

I hope I’m around to go with her on her first voyage.