The prognosis for the future of ageing is grim, with potential problems ahead, like statistics that show how the proportion of older people in the population is increasing. IAN PEARSON offers a more optimistic picture.
In 2000, I had the major of hitting 40. Having survived it, I`ve discovered that my brain cells have not suddenly emigrated en-masse and my body still works just as badly as it did before. I don`t feel too much in need of an upgrade just yet!
It did sharpen my focus on ageing though, since I`m probably more than half way through my life now, and half way through my career too. But I`m too familiar with the potential problems ahead – we hear them recited all the time. I know the demographic statistics, how the proportion of older people in population is increasing.
Our pension funds will struggle to cope as we live well beyond the age that we`ve paid for. Our young people might decide to emigrate to lower tax countries where car drivers don`t drive everywhere at 25mph and there isn`t an `old people dictatorship`.
There mightn`t be enough people left working here to pay the tax to keep us in the manner to which we are accustomed. Health care will be increasingly rationed, even while the technology improves dramatically. The roads will be clogged up, public transport still won`t work, and we`ll be priced away from using cars because of global warming anyway.
And we`ll be forced to pay an increasing part of our pensions just to keep reasonably healthy, and won`t have enough left to enjoy life. Thinking too much along these this lines can make you very depressed very quickly!
But I`m a technologist and an optimist at heart, so such a line of reasoning, however plausible it sounds in the media, doesn`t appeal to my normal inclination. Surely it will be better than that? Of course it will! The above problems are very real in their potential, and they could happen with sufficient mismanagement. But we need to look at them in the overall context of changing global society, and in the light of changing technology. There are many trends that are usually overlooked that lie in our favour.
Firstly, we are still witnessing a slow but steady expansion of the economy, that will make the country as a whole richer, doubling in wealth over 35 years at current rates. We are facing a shortage of labour in the short to medium term, and only in the very long term is there likely to be a change in this. New technologies create new jobs, just as they destroy old ones.
While automation and artificial intelligence will one day put an end to this, we won`t see the start of the decline for at least 15 years, maybe much longer. This ensures continuation of tax income for quite some time. The only threat to this is that the work might move overseas, but the UK has enjoyed the position of being the world`s most innovative country for a long time, so we are very likely to keep a lot of the valuable work here.
Secondly, the very technologies that threaten to end this trend are the ones that will stop it from being a problem. Increased levels of artificial intelligence (AI) and rapidly developing robotics will enable the bulk of services that people need to be provided automatically, as well as displacing them in the workplace. Medical advice, information services and general assistance can be provided without the need for people.
Instead, people will provide the human contact side of services of all kinds. In this field, old people are just as able as young people. Retirement puts an end to paid work, but doesn`t generally stop people from interacting with their friends or neighbours or with society as a whole. Such interaction can provide almost everything when coupled with robotics and AI. As we move into this care economy, those jobs that are the last to be automated will rely heavily on such human interpersonal skills.
Age will be an advantage, since it takes a good many years to become proficient at many human skills. Self-confidence and wisdom take time to develop. It is also the case that the very same technologies will be available in other countries, so work will be displaced everywhere, not just in the UK. Our overall position on the economic league might be scarcely unaffected.
And thirdly, older people generally have more time than young people. They have shown great willingness to use some of this time on the net. The net is a valuable source of contact that many people miss when they leave work. Community networks are the local side of the internet and are already growing rapidly in many places.
Older people are likely to have a larger influence in these networks because of their greater time availability. They will use this power imbalance in their favour to wield greater control over local politics. National government will gradually hand over more power to both local and global decision making over the next few decades, and as they do, so older people will gain a disproportionate amount of this power. Additionally, the net will give them more means to co-ordinate any political actions that they find appropriate, linking older people across national boundaries. This will enable them to leverage the growing older population across the developed world.
Nor will getting older imply having to slow down and put your feet up until much later in life. We can expect to live longer, but also remain healthier, almost up to the last minute. We`ll still die, but not so gradually.
Wearable health monitors will let us stay out of hospital, but under close medical supervision, much more of the time. And for those of us that are still young today, technologies such as nanotechnology will come on stream just in time for us to benefit from micro-machines living inside our bodies, reinforcing the body`s own defences and maintenance systems.
Longevity will increase, health will increase, vigour will increase, and old power will increase. I wouldn`t go so far as to say I can`t wait, but I`m certainly not worried about getting old.
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