Would the world be a better place if science could stop people from aging? In Time, the new sci-fi thriller starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, is based on the outdated idea that longer lives would mean chaos. The film imagines a world in which somatic aging has been engineered to stop at 25; after that, a person is given just one year’s worth of time and must earn more by working, and the minutes tick by on a display embedded in his arm. Once someone’s clock runs out, he or she literally “times out” and dies. What’s more, time serves as money—the longer you have on your life clock, the richer you are.
While the film’s fun, it falls into a dystopian trap, assuming that greater longevity would create a terrifying society. But it gets almost everything about human life extension wrong. Scientists are on the verge of discovering ways to radically extend human life—though they probably won’t figure out how to maintain the pristine looks of 25-year-olds any time soon. In Time seems to argue that we should be concerned about this looming longevity. But there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Timberlake’s character, Will Salas, is a working-class man who lives in the ghetto and barely scrapes by, earning just enough time to make it to work the next day—bringing new meaning to “living paycheck to paycheck.” One night, he meets a wealthy centenarian suffering from an acute case of rich guilt. He opens Salas’ eyes to the depths of the time system’s inequities: The rich can live forever because they oppress the poor. “Everyone can’t live forever,” Hamilton explains. “Where would we put them? … How else can there be men with a million years when most live day to day?” After Hamilton commits suicide and gifts his vast amounts of remaining time to Salas, Timberlake becomes a fugitive as police assume foul play.
In Time’s perhaps most frightening assertion is that an age of extended longevity would require strict population controls (i.e., death) to combat overcrowding and resource depletion. (Indeed, even this week we are seeing renewed concern about overpopulation, as the global head count hits 7 billion.) But this is premised on mistaken Malthusian beliefs that humans consume more than they produce. Sure, if people don’t die at the same rate as they do today, then the population may go up (depending on fertility rates), but by how much? The answer might surprise you.
Scholars at the University of Chicago have approached the population/longevity question in an interesting way. If the entire population of Sweden were to become immortal, they asked, how much would population increase? Their model suggests that Sweden’s population would increase by only 22 percent over 100 years. (For comparison’s sake, the number of people in Sweden grew from 5.1 million in 1900 to 8.8 million in 2000, or 57 percent.) One of the reasons that cutting death rates doesn’t affect population as much as we might think is that heavy population growth actually comes from births, not from fewer deaths.
So let’s say the earth can handle people living longer. What about the movie’s claim that the wealthy will have access to longer life, but the poor will not? The sad fact is that that is already the case, to a less dramatic extent: A Native American man living in South Dakota has a life expectancy of about 58 years, while an Asian-American woman in New Jersey has a life expectancy of 91 years.
As breakthrough longevity technologies become available, the rich will certainly be the first to partake; they are the ones who will pay most of the early fixed costs for everything from flat-screen TVs to experimental medical treatments. Eventually, these life-extenders will reach everyone. The question is, how long will it take? If the gap between the fountain of longevity’s availability for the wealthy and accessibility for the poor is a negligible amount of time, the transition to a long-lived population will be smooth. But if the trickle-down takes a long time, we may indeed face serious social disruption—but not exactly the way In Time suggests. The movie assumes that large groups of people who know their lives could be saved will be complacent about their unnecessary deaths. In reality, those people could pick up arms and literally fight for their lives. Luckily, that scenario seems unlikely, thanks to technological progress.
Historically, the time necessary to distribute new technologies across socioeconomic borders has been speeding up. For instance, it took 46 years for one-quarter of the U.S. population to get electricity and 35 years for the telephone to get that far. But it took only 16 years for one-quarter of American households to get a personal computer, 13 years for a cellphone, and seven years for Internet access, a promising trend for those who wish to see the widespread use of longevity technologies. Yes, these examples are all communication innovations—but actually, health technologies themselves are fast becoming information technologies. Just like computers have a code based on 1s and 0s, so too do humans have a code, based on DNA. For example, prices for human genome sequencing are falling, which will make personalized medicine—one potential source of extended lifespans—cheaper in the future. Even if there is a gap between the life expectancy of the rich and the poor, it likely would not be a case of the rich gaining extra years at the expense of the underprivileged. Instead, the opposite is true: The rich have an incentive to make the technologies accessible to everyone, because that means more customers. Hoarding the technology would offer no advantages and would result in an unstable world.
The last major flaw of In Time’s long-living world is its portrayal of the economy as a zero-sum game. If one person gets more time, it is at the expense of others. Rather than expanding, the economy just shifts a fixed set of resources from one place to another.
In reality, individuals innovate and economies grow, allowing more people to prosper than in the past. But people don’t seem to innovate in the film’s world, either because they are so distressed about living day-to-day or because they are so rich that they won’t try anything new for fear of losing their long lives. (Even those with scads of time left on their clock can die by misadventure, so we see a wealthy girl, played by Amanda Seyfried, who is terrified of going into the ocean and drowning.) As one character puts it, “The poor die and the rich don’t live.”
The knowledge that time is limited should instead tilt things in favor of enhanced ambition. More time means more opportunity. And, despite well-publicized stories of young tech entrepreneurs creating the next big thing, the reality is that innovation is a late-peak field. Leonardo da Vinci was 51 years old when he started painting the Mona Lisa, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was 50 when he discovered the X-ray. Though they might seem middle-aged by our current standards, they were actually on the elderly side for their time periods. Benjamin Franklin was 46 when he conducted his famous kite experiment verifying the nature of electricity, but he didn’t stop there. He was 55 when he invented the glass harmonica and 78 when he invented bifocals. If Franklin had the opportunity to live longer in a healthier state, one wonders what else he would have contributed to society.
During the Cro-Magnon era, human life expectancy was a meager 18 years. By the time of the European Renaissance, one could expect 30 birthdays; by 1850, life expectancy had risen to 43 years. Now, those born in Western societies can expect close to 80 birthdays and look forward to more as science and technology advance.
These gains are stunning, but even bigger possibilities await. There will be a day in the not-too-distant future when life expectancy—and, more importantly, health expectancy—is 150 years. It won’t stop there, of course, but that is what is in our near-term view. That doesn’t mean the world will be problem-free or that core tensions between people will disappear. Indeed, in a world where people are around for longer, relationship issues may be more pronounced. (Get ready to deal with a great-grandmother-in-law.) Young workers entering the workforce will have to battle supercentenarians who have no urge to retire. We may face new and troubling types of pollution and perhaps epidemics that we cannot yet fathom.
Being around to witness those problems will be exciting and challenging, but it won’t be anything like the scenario portrayed in In Time.