Modern Methuselahs

Planning that 951st birthday party? Think ahead.

Photo Illustration by Don Button

There’s a guy over in England, a serious geneticist at Cambridge University, who thinks our life span can be extended almost indefinitely. His name is Dr. Aubrey de Grey, and in the tradition of scientists on a mission, he’s an odd-looking duck, with flowing beard and mustache that give him a distinctly biblical look. Like Methuselah.

They profiled de Grey a while ago on 60 Minutes because, apparently, Mike Wallace is being used as the prototype for the kind of life span the good doctor envisions.

De Grey believes that aging is a disease and that, as such, it can be cured through much the same measures that have extended our life spans over the past century or so. Assaults on the body can be spared by technological and medical advances, and, just as our ancestors had life expectancies of a mere few decades, we will soon, according to de Grey, look back at our threescore and 10 as being mere chump change, age wise.

De Grey makes a compelling case for the prospect of a 500- to 1,000-year life span, an extended existence with centuries of youth and good health. And though de Grey might be an odd-looking duck, he’s surely no quack. He is a well-established scientist with a most persuasive take on how to approach slowing or halting the deleterious effects of aging. Imagine playing tennis—and not doubles, either—well into your ninth century. Imagine going clubbing and hitting on the hotties well into your triple digits.

But, of course, there will be downsides to this new and extended longevity. Surely there will be a boom in the market for how-to books (or Web sites, or brain-implantation information systems, or whatever new means the future might hold for serving up the same old human exchange of misinformation, porn and celebrity gossip).

There’s bound to be, for instance, a raft of books offering advice about how to keep the vitality in marriages that go on for centuries, especially during that rocky seventh century of wedded bliss when passion tends to take a decided downturn and boredom begins to infest the marital bed after couples have experienced an estimated 50,000 couplings. Projecting current divorce rates onto those long future life spans, it’s not hard to imagine people who are making alimony payments to hundreds of former spouses.

And, since de Grey envisions a life span that is both fertile and virile for a millennium, people will need advice on how to reconcile the problems of siblings who are separated in age by 400 or 500 years. If you thought your younger brother was a dweeby little twerp because of a four-year age difference, imagine how nerdy that kid is going to look to you when he’s 600 years your junior.

It is not inconceivable to imagine a husband and wife producing hundreds of offspring over the course of their productive years, and just keeping track of the birthdays of all those kids is bound to present challenges. Think of the greeting-card rack at the supermarket, with all those special cards they now make for every age milestone, with slogans that will, in the future, read “Happy Birthday: Life Begins at 600” or “You’re Not Old, You’re Only Eight Centuries.” That card display alone will have grown to take up the space of an entire mega-store of the kind we know today.

And that isn’t even counting the grandchildren. Or great-grandchildren. Or great-great-great-great- great-grandchildren. Just the cost in birthday cards is going to require greatly increased future incomes. If a woman doesn’t hit menopause until she’s 600 or 700, then she could easily have 300 or 400 children during her child-bearing years, and the number of grandchildren those 300 or 400 kids might produce would make for some fairly crowded Thanksgiving get-togethers. A future Martha Stewart is bound to have her work cut out for her in offering holiday tips for hostesses who are cooking for a family gathering where the number of guests will run into the tens of thousands.

Career planning is also going to present unprecedented challenges. Who wants to spend four years in college studying for a profession that just might become obsolete and disappear in 300 or 400 years? Will there be, for instance, “shock jocks” on radio 300 or 400 years from now? Will there even be radio? Anyone currently filling out college applications and trying to decide on a major surely will have to think long and hard about checking the box that says “Communications” if the dream includes becoming the next Howard Stern.

Retirement planning also will pose some difficulties. First, there will be the problem of finding a company that can sustain an 800-year career. If past is prologue in this regard, it is going to be very difficult for future workers to hook up with corporations or companies that will last over the course of their working lives. How many businesses are intact from the 12th century, for example? So, workers are going to have to be very selective in choosing a firm that will be able to employ them and then pay them retirement benefits for nearly a thousand years. In that context, a business concern that only lasts 400 or 500 years will be a virtual Enron of uncertainty for the career-minded worker of the future.

Those retirement years are going to pose problems as well. Suppose future workers retire on their 800th birthday, with the prospect of 200 “golden” years to do as they please. Allowing roughly 50 years for travel, which would be ample time to go everywhere there is, that leaves 150 years for golfing, playing bridge, gardening and fishing. With millions upon millions of 900-year-old retirees fishing for up to 200 years or more, the environmental assault on the trout and bass populations is bound to be monumental. Beyond that, it’s likely that even the most dull-witted of retirees may grow bored with sitting in a boat watching a bobber for a century or two.

And boredom is probably going to increase exponentially for people who endure hundreds upon hundreds of years of Will & Grace reruns, not to mention the oldies stations endlessly repeating 500-year-old hit songs. How long can the species endure Bono or Eminem or Celine Dion? Think of listening to the Steve Miller Band for about 600 years, and you might get some idea of the golden-oldies stations of the future. “Fly like an eagle. Doot doot doo doo” until hell freezes over. Not good.

Still, though the prospect of long, long life spans does present certain challenges, there is much that will be good about those prospects. For instance, that junk drawer you’ve been planning to organize for the last decade? Chances will improve on actually getting around to getting that done.