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Future Centenarians: Wise Elders or Struldbruggs?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 07, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Children born in the industrialized world after 2000 are likely to live to be 100, researchers suggest, and the social and economic consequences are huge and unpredictable.

"This is a demographic revolution the likes of which we have never seen before on earth," Olivia Mitchell, professor of insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, says in a Knowledge@Wharton article.

"The real challenges of living to 100 will be to systematically weave financial literacy into elementary, middle and high school programs," Professor Mitchell says. "We need to get people to think differently about investing in themselves, in their human capital." She says basic economics eludes many workers. Only 20 percent of Americans in their 50s have planed for retirement, even though many will retire in their 60s, and live into their late 70s and beyond. Mitchell says education needs change so that people are prepared for several 20-year careers over a life time.

"Ageing Populations: The Challenges Ahead," a Lancet article by Kaare Christiansen, a professor and aging expert at the University of Southern Denmark, James W. Vaupel, of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, and others, predictsneed for many radical public policy changes.

Their research suggests life expectancy will increase by 30 years in Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and even more in Japan, Spain and Italy. While the Lancet study did not examine life expectancy in the developing world, the Wharton article says those countries are also experiencing increases in life-expectancy. According to Census figures, there were 55,000 centenarians in the U.S. in 2005, and the Census Bureau predicts there could be 5.3 million people over 100 year-old by 2100. The Lancet authors think longevity will increase through the Twenty-first century, and that "continued progress in the longest living populations suggests that we are not close to a limit."

Researchers also say older people will be healthier than earlier generations. Wharton Professor Kent Smetters says in the Wharton article that Medicare will be stressed by a growing elderly population, but that because the highest healthcare cost are in the last two or three years of life, delaying that expense will save money beforehand. Researchers also expect major change in employment, with increasing numbers of working elderly who may want more flexibility and part time jobs. Social changes will include adjustment in retirement age, old workers with younger supervisors, changes in expectations and attitudes about age, and the need for institutional restructuring in Social Security, Medicare and education.

As Vaupel puts it, people would organize their lives differently if they knew they'd live to be 100 or older. Some projections for continued contributions by healthy old people are quite optimistic. Some aren't. The worst could evoke the Struldbruggs, the immortals who lived in Luggnagg in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. They lose their youth, but live on, hairless, toothless, befuddled and despised. By 80 they are legally dead and their heirs get their estates. By 90, they forget most things, and can't even read, because memory won't carry them from beginning to end of a sentence. Worse, because their language is always in flux, Struldbruggs of one generation can't communicate with anyone from another generation. The intergenerational consequences of real increased longevity will be a fertile area for study.

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