The Rich Will Outlive Us All

Tech billionaires’ attempts to beat death will not democratize longevity

Photo by Adrien King on Unsplash

YYou might have read about all the tech billionaires who are backing ambitious longevity research. Among them are Larry Ellison, who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-aging research; Alphabet’s Larry Page, who has put $1 billion behind Calico, a mysterious life-extension company. And then there’s PayPal founder and all-purpose dark overlord, Peter Thiel, who is slurping the blood from the necks of — well, wait, no, it’s not quite clear just what Peter Thiel is doing. But he has expressed interest in parabiosis, which involves getting blood transfusions from young people.

The tech industry’s interest in immortality isn’t surprising: Conquering death would be the ultimate holy grail in disruption — and a fabulous new market opportunity. Though in this case the interest probably isn’t just intellectual and capitalistic. Accessing eternity (or something near it) would be the most extreme act of self-exaltation: everlasting proof of one’s genius and superiority.

That’s why most of the ink devoted to the quest for eternal life has understandably focused on the science and the personalities behind it—the supercharged funding that has come from people who have built their fortunes making software and who seem to believe aging is a code that can be cracked.

But less has been written about the consequences that could arise if these billionaires — let’s call them the Centennials — were to actually succeed in pushing themselves, and their wealthy friends, into the three-digit club.

Conquering death would be the ultimate holy grail in disruption — and a fabulous new market opportunity.

For context, current estimates place the average lifespan for someone born in 2050 in the high-eighties or early nineties — a nice little uptick due to incremental progress in research and the targeting of specific diseases. But those targeting ambitious lifespan projects say we can go much further, with some scientists arguing there is an absolute upper limit for the human body and others saying there’s no reason we can’t make it to 1,000. (Eventually we’ll just call the Centennials the Milleni — oh wait, scratch that.)

Already, there is about a 20-year lifespan gap across different socioeconomic groups in the United States, with an average age of 66 in some of America’s poorest communities, compared with 87 in more affluent areas. It’s possible to imagine that by the end of the century, the spread in life expectancy could further widen as expensive advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and more are available only to the truly rich.

We’ve long known that lifespan is not just the intersection of good genes and healthy living, but that wealth and environment also play important roles. The difference is that in the future, even more so than the present, a longer life may be something one can purchase outright. And what can be acquired by one person is often coveted by many; what is coveted by many is often a big market opportunity.

A market opportunity, in the tech industry, is often couched as “democratization.” Just as Silicon Valley has democratized publishing, communication, information, and payments, now the tech Centennials are gearing up to help “democratize longevity.”

Whatever it’s called — longevity, life extension, “better aging” — the field will likely follow in the footsteps of blockchain, VR, and A.I., full of legitimately awe-inspiring advances as well as occasionally specious claims. Even more so than today, we’re likely to see bioactive substances and “life enhancing” supplements in our food and drinks, as well as gadgets and applications that nudge, remind, or even demand certain lifestyle modifications to keep the user on a healthy path. In the name of crushing death, our bodies could be measured and monitored and gamified in every moment to a far more staggering extent than a rather primitive Fitbit telling you how many steps you took during the day.

Bit by bit, we will live longer — not exponentially but incrementally — the beneficiaries of trickled-down, mass-marketed dregs of the Centennials’ efforts. And you can bet that the same industry that wants to help us crack immortality will have plenty of supplementary services to sell us as we gently make our way to the grave. It is only the mildest act of futurism to imagine the tech industry bringing us pharmaceuticals delivered by drone, self-piloted land/air wheelchairs, and dentures that analyze the shifting composition of saliva to alert us and our robot doctors to any worrisome change in our biome. We can expect some flavor of these services well before the midpoint of this century.

You think wealth distribution is unequal today? Think about what that looks like when the rich die much more slowly than the rest of the population.

Of course, it has long been reported that an aging population will put enormous strain on societal infrastructure — just think of the implications for the environment, transportation, health care, and the amount of space allocated to long complaints in the Letters to the Editor section of the one remaining newspaper. But less attention has been paid to age inequality. While any discussion of the future is bound to be speculative, the potential inequality of our death dates deserves more attention.

First and foremost, income inequality is likely to worsen. That’s because death has long been a great redistributor of wealth. With no death to trigger a hefty inheritance tax, the Centennials will rack up even larger piles of the world’s money. You think wealth distribution is unequal today? Think about what that looks like when the rich die much more slowly than the rest of the population and when there’s no tax on capital to keep them from amassing more.

Power is a corollary to wealth. It’s derived through how much capital you control and through the relationships you build with other wealthy people. In a future of great income inequality, one could expect a much greater concentration of power in the same (old) hands as before. That might be a boon for federal funding of wheelchair access ramps, but a sea of wealthy, crepey-skinned leaders will hardly be representative of the full population or as likely to align with their interests. What happens when a 130-year old U.S. president determines the education budget for students who themselves won’t retire until a century later?

This might sound like the prelude to a Children of the Corn–style uprising against these Centennials, but the insidious thing about age inequality — as with most inequality — is that we sup from it as much as we criticize it, doing whatever we can to improve our standing on a personal level while simultaneously trying to fight a larger principle. And so it is far more likely that we will moan about inequality but nothing much will be done to fix it, because we’ll still be buying up all the Kylie Kollagen Kits we can, and the people who have the power to remedy the situation are the very ones who are threatened by its upheaval.

Of all the billionaires who have ruled over us in the course of recent history, it is the tech billionaires in particular who profess nothing but good intentions when they talk about the problems that they themselves have created. One can picture the tech Centennials — long known for their strong values and mission statements — making grand statements about how profoundly saddened they are by age disparity. They might make promises to combat it; they’ll commission research to explore its causes. Maybe they’ll even give away stem cell deodorant or Elon Musk Neural Lace in lower-income towns.

In fact, we may well see that a period marked by great age, wealth, and power inequality will also be accompanied by a great age in philanthropy, allowing the tech Centennials to cast themselves as benevolent forces for good. Granted, much of their giving may be concentrated in alleviating pressures that their own health care and life-extension businesses have created. Retirement communities and hospice centers could proliferate in number, with the Centennial donor’s name emblazoned across the entrance, serving as a constant reminder of his largesse.

Remember all of this in your final moments, as they wheel you out into the Travis Kalanick Ambulance Airtube and you see your city — now known as Zucker Berg — whizz by, face after puckered face of white, wrinkled men gazing down benevolently upon you. Remember that you were the one who bought the supplements and the treatments; you were the one who devoured images of the Centennials’ plastic faces and sprightly, 120-year-old bodies, leaping across a golf course.

You were the one who wanted to live forever; the Centennials were just there to make it all possible. Anything that happened after that was out of their hands, a side effect, if you will, of immortality.

Technophile, technophobe. Music software start-up founder. Former Google VP. Author, The Big Disruption. Fan of shochu, chocolate, and the absurd.

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