Yesterday, Mitoyo Kawate, who at age 114 was the oldest person on the planet, died. She wasn't the oldest person ever, though - that honor goes to Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died at 122 in 1997 (and there are a fairly large number of people without confirmed birth dates who have lived into their 120s, while in the Caucasus mountains some are thought to have lived to be 140, which is, as far as we know, as long as any human being has lived, ever).
But these records are written in the sand. "May you live to be 100" was, not very long ago, a proverbial wish for extreme good fortune. But already, life expectancy at birth has hit 85 for girls in Japan. That's average, mind you. It also doesn't take into account medical advances being made possible by new technologies and the exploration of the human genome, or, for that matter, behavioral changes in people themselves. These changes are rapidly driving human lifespans forward by months and years at a time.
If you want to, the odds are excellent that you'll live to see 100. If you're under 40, live in the developed world, have decent genes, take reasonable care of your health, and don't have some unlucky accident, you can probably choose now to be healthy, hale and alert into your 100s (possibly decades longer). Babies born today in wealthy countries may well routinely live to 120, many medical demographers think. (Beyond 140 is a crap shoot. There are all sorts of things that suddenly go wrong with our bodies at the extreme end of life, some of them not at all well understood, and many scientists believe 140 or so to be the "maximum theoretical human lifespan.")
The implications of more people living to a robust old age are huge. Nearly all our societal contracts between the young and the old are the products of times when living to be 65 was doing well. So, too, are many of the ways we've been taught to plan our lives.
What does it mean for retirement planning, for example, when you are likely to have thirty or forty years ahead of you at age 65? Do the concepts of career and retirement themselves change?
What about relationships? Does marriage at 20 or 30 as a life-long commitment make sense? (As one wag put it, "I may love you 30 years'-worth, but do I love you 70 years'-worth?") How does knowing your adult great-grandchildren change your perspective?
Older people are almost universally more involved with civic and community life. What does a society of elders look like? Does it become a benign and far-sighted gerontocracy, or an ossified society unable to change and adapt?
Can our economies handle much higher percentages of idle elderly? Can our natural systems handle the strain of populations swollen by increased longevity?
These are non-trivial questions. And in the developed world, they are questions facing us today.
The developing world's a little trickier, as any real advances there must be predicated on overcoming the widespread hunger, lack of housing, sanitation and clean water, terrible pollution, epidemic disease and periodic societal chaos that now afflict billions of people. That said, it is clearly within human power to overcome these things (the entire planetary human needs wish list would cost less every year than the US defense budget), and if they are overcome, the developing world could see a comparatively larger increase in longevity, "lifepan leapfrogging."
When you consider that we're in the middle of the largest baby boom in human history - that over two billion people are under ago 20, most of them in the developing world - the implication go brain-boggling. As they live longer and (hopefully) grow more economically secure, they are likely to have fewer children. It is entirely possible that this wave of young people will be larger than any generation before it, or after it, dwarfing the American post-war Baby Boom into insignificance. Crisis? Opportunity? Both.
The only way I can see of squaring this circle, is to basically abolish retirement - at least in its current form of two or three decades of healthy idleness. We need to turn back the clock to when state pensions were first thought up, when nobody retired until they were physically unable to go on working.
Back in the 1870s, this was obviously inhumane. But today's jobs, even for manual workers, are much less physically demanding. And at the same time, living conditions have dramatically improved. By and large, workers in the West benefit from adequate healthcare, paid holidays, minimum wage laws, bans on forced overtime, health and safety inspections of workplaces - all of which make it perfectly reasonable to expect that we'll go on working until, or pretty close till, we drop.
Some countries (in my humble opinion :) still need to improve their workers' rights - healthcare in the US is an obvious example. But in most of the highly developed countries facing a pensioner boom, just about everyone has the basic requirements for a decent life. Without quitting their jobs.