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 In Time, the new sci-fi thriller starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, is based on the outdated idea that longer lives would mean chaos.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.