09 May 2007



There was a time when the process of aging brought with it status, respect and dignity. It also guaranteed a seat on the Clapham omnibus. Today we can forget status, respect is relative and dignity costs money. And if you're lucky, you might find a free seat on the bus. So, what happened?

Some would blame the government, and the government would blame its predecessor. Some would blame television while others would point at the indifference of capitalism. In my opinion, we're so busy blaming everyone else around us that we just don't have the time to understand what is going on. I will argue that the answer is more fundamental than whatever has been suggested so far.

To cut an old story short, in the past elderly people were the source of knowledge to the rest of society. People would look at the elderly not only as a source of knowledge and information, but also wisdom and justice. It is not by accident that God is depicted as a white bearded old man in the Sistine Chapel. It is not by chance that children always ask their mother whether she's seen a toy or a pencil. These figures, whether real or metaphorical, represent the holders of knowledge and wisdom. And because of this we gave them the reverence and status they deserve.

Today, however, if we want a recipe for an apple pie we wouldn't ask grandma, but look it up on some website. And we certainly won't ask grandpa how to get to the family's favourite picnic spot in the forest; we just plot the coordinates in our GPS and the car will take us there. In the past, elderly people were today's equivalent of an IT server used by search engines to keep information from the internet. In the past, people went to the elderly for advice, counsel, and judgement, today we do things differently.

In deed, these past fifty years or so things have been changing. Mass education meant that people were self sufficient in knowledge acquisition. This happened through the boom in the publishing of books, then through the explosion of the mass media and today the internet and world travel. Today, we can find enough information on the internet that will tell us how stay young, how to be young and what to do as young people.

This, I suggest, is the real reason why today aging doesn't automatically bring with it status, respect or dignity. Aging, today, seems to bring with it redundancy in society; at least once the money runs out or people become a burden or interfere with holiday plans. On the other hand, if the young seem arrogant towards the old, it is not necessarily because the young are wicked, some might be, but maybe because the old might appear to have nothing to offer the young. Surely this cannot be so nor ought it be so; lets see.

Aging takes us well beyond the parameters of society and relationships between human beings. Aging is a fundamental physical phenomenon. At face value, aging seems to apply to everything in the universe.

The first aspect of aging from a physical point of view is that aging takes place in a space/time environment. So by definition aging is a concept that reflects change in this setting. And although I don't see any restrictions or limitations in the use of this term, it is, however, of more practical use when applied to living things, as opposed to the terms old or ancient. The main reason for this, I suspect, is that we expect to witness the process of aging or rather the process of getting old.

Whilst there is no doubt that there is a causal relationship between the space/time parameters on the process of aging, what is the scope of this causality? For example, now a days we read about the aging gene, which suggests that the bodies of humans and other animal are predetermined to live to a certain age. But how much of the aging process is due to such a gene, if there is this gene in the first place, and how much is it due to the environment? And equally important question is: does this mean that we can manipulate the gene to live longer? Would this make the term 'aging' redundant for human beings?

We can take this line of thinking a step further by asking what is the relationship between the second law of thermo dynamics, as applied to living bodies, and the same law when applied to the environment around us? How does the law interact in different contexts? Which has the more influence? For example, global warming suggests that we might have reached a stage in the life of the galaxy where it is an even contest as to who influences whom; we seem to have reached a point where we influence the environment as much as it influences us. And to take this point into the realms of science fiction, instead of being responsible for global warming can we change the environment to meet our needs: not too hot, not too cold, just right?

A more relevant question is: can we manipulate the aging process by delaying, stopping or reversing the second law? At least in theory and at least when applied to us?

We can safely exclude the possibility of going backwards. The toothpaste principle prevents us from doing that; for those who are not familiar with the toothpaste principle, this states that once the toothpaste is out of the tube it's impossible to put it back. So by analogy, it's just impossible to go back in time to recover our young bodies. Of course, silicon and surgery are not the same thing. For those who are not convinced there are many other principles that prevent reversal: for example chaos; do you remember those pretty pictures of fractals? And then there is the randomness involved in the Brownian motion process associated with the second law.

It's equally unlikely that we can stop the aging process. And even if we could we are still limited to the age of the universe, at the very least. This leaves us with the possibility of delaying the effects of the second law. In other words, we can delay aging, but we cannot prevent it.

In fact, this is what we try and do. Instead of coming up with solutions to redesign the human body, we try to come up with solutions to neutralise the effects of aging. For example, by developing medicines and treatments to deal with diseases brought about by aging. These are the more serious efforts; I am excluding the concoctions which pass as anti aging creams or such like.

Having considered aging of humans from some of the depths of the physical world, lets look at aging from some of the lofty towers of morality and politics.

We can safely say that the business of aging really took off in the 1950's. Either as a stroke of genius or the effects of euphoria after the victories of the second world war, politicians came up with the idea that, "the government will, from now on, look after its citizens from the cradle to the grave.'' And as a consequence they set up, amongst many things, big hospitals and universal pension schemes. An ambitious project, no doubt, except they forgot to take into account the little matter of paying for it.

It might be argued that the transition from the elderly being looked after by their family to being looked after by the state, was the consequence of two important events. The first was the mass movement of people from the country to the city chasing jobs. One of the consequences of this was that people could not set roots in a single place and therefore could not depend on the familiarity and ties of those around them. Strangers usually don't look after their neighbours. Today, the same phenomena is taking place in so called emerging economies or economies that have recently joined the high table of advanced economies. Maybe a quick read of the relevant history and economic history books would save these countries some anguish in the future.

The second reason for the state taking over our welfare is more complex because this is the direct result of the two world wars especially the second. Which, incidentally, explains why the welfare state is closely associated with the Anglo Saxon world. The argument went something like this: the second world war was an European war, nothing to do with the Anglo Saxon world. So, to justify and to sell the war to the population politicians promised utopia in return. Of course, that the second world war had to be fought was not in doubt, but that the promise of utopia was the wrong sales pitch is not in doubt neither.

The moral question is therefore, who has the duty to look after those that are weak in our society? And specifically, what does society owe those who, in the past, helped to build the society we now have?

Either by design or by default we end up trusting politicians to do the bidding for us. It is, of course, always a hot issue on whether we should trust politicians with matters of importance. Whatever is the case, we know one thing for sure: the welfare state as implemented these past few decades, and which is practically adopted by most countries in the world, does not lead to utopia. We know that today's economic model is not sufficient to maintain the welfare state. We also know that certain moral imperatives are not as binding as they ought to be. The consequence of this is that there is no uniformity on how the elderly are treated today. Some have become super rich, while others can hardly survive. Maybe it has always been like this, which is probably the worst of all possible worlds. What is certain is that politicians will have some serious moral dilemmas on their hands when they are forced to find alternatives. Ironically, the issue is as new as the solution will have to be new; the solution will have to come from the future and not from all the woolly thinking that took place in the past.

So what about the future? If the past is difficult to rearrange, the future is equally difficult to bring about as we want. One problem with the future is that it suffers from a very serious deficit of knowledge. If we know what exactly the company is looking for, we would prepare ourselves much better for the job interview. If we knew how the economy is going to perform in seventy years time, we would introduce a more equitable pension system.

The fact that the future has a habit of being unpredictable means that there are limits to what we can plan. When politicians introduced the welfare state they assumed they would still have a monopoly on the wealth of the world. In less than fifty years the whole economic and political structure of the world changed beyond our imagination. This means that there are limits to how much we can blame politicians, even if they are mostly responsible for the bulk of today's ills.

Going back to the future, today we find ourselves in the following situation. Governments are telling us, through public health programmes, to look after ourselves better, eat healthy diets, stop smoking and take exercise. The medical profession is responsible for some spectacular treatments that help us live better and longer. Personal freedoms and self determination have never been guaranteed by the state as much as they are now. We're as close to utopian freedom as we have ever been: we have written human rights guaranteeing our freedom, we have good health and we have a cheap airline ticket to be with nature. Sure some people lag behind; but we're ok Jack!

On the other hand, there is no structure in place to safeguard pensions in the future, other than to rely on illegal immigrants or cheap labour. Never mind the fact that nobody has argued whether pensions are necessary any more. Neither is there a legal and social culture to stop ageism in the employment market. If people are to live longer, than it is natural that they would want to work longer. The half hearted efforts against ageism do not amount to a anything we can call culture. And although we speak of the global economy, today's politicians, in all countries, have forgot to include a global job market in the global economy. There are still many countries who although they are happy to sell things to the rest of the world they are not prepared to open their job market so quickly. A global economy also mean a global job market.

This is the future contradiction of today political and economic models. The future is flawed as far as aging is concerned because the future is based on a consumer society. And a consumer society is based on short termism, but pensions and the needs of older people, such as good health or even such ethical issues as mercy killing, are based on long termism. Moreover, even employment is not guaranteed for life, so by definition saving for the future is not something that can be guaranteed on a consistent basis. Today, not only do we expect to change employers in our career, but in some countries they also expect to change their career during their working life. This is over and above the fact that we are also expect to have periods of unemployment for whatever reasons. However, that an economy flourishes on the principle of free trade is as close as we will come to apriori knowledge on this matter. The question is whether we keep applying the laws of the jungle, i.e. the numbers game, or whether we will start applying rational principles such as equitable commerce?

Which of course brings us back to square one. Unless politicians and other movers and shakers in society improve their act we are going to end up with more of the same. By living longer, due to good health policies, elderly people will have to have status by virtue of occupying places of influence at an older age. Respect and dignity will still accrue to older people because brain technology can still keep our grey matter functioning properly and able to acquire new knowledge. As a direct consequence, today's third age generation will be the last generation to suffer from wide spread technophobia. In other words, elderly people ought to maintain their position in society by remaining a source of knowledge for society. A mindset of constant intellectual improvement will certainly regain the respect of the young.

After all is said and done there is going to be one advantage in living longer and healthier. Given that in the future there will be many more people who live to be a hundred, journalists will stop asking inane questions like: what did you do to live so long? As if we could all live to be a hundred by taking a tot of whiskey everyday in the morning or by munching away at an olive for lunch.

So you thought that there was no hope for us. When we are a hundred, which is, admittedly, quite a while away from now, journalists wont ask us inane questions but maybe they might ask us some interesting questions, such as: now that you are hundred, what future plans do you have for your love life?

Take care Lawrence

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