So what will it mean for kids when adults are living to 120 and beyond? Besides the likelihood that they will have lots of potential caretakers (or at least endure a borderline inhumane number of cheek pinches at Thanksgiving), they may be seen as even more rare and precious. Society will skew older. The years before puberty will represent an ever-smaller proportion of the overall lifespan. We can speculate that, for a certain income bracket, the cult of childhood will become yet cultier, the cocoons at once softer and more anxiously woven. (Are you 12, well-off, and reading this? Stop. You should be strategizing about how to get your baby—you know, the one you’ll have 20 years down the road—into preschool.)
Daniel Hart, the director of the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers University, has a grimmer take on what longevity might do to young people. He allows that if the elderly need support, then perhaps children will be seen as valuable—“future fuel for the economy.” But if older generations stay fit, sharp, and employed, he says, “youth would be increasingly framed as immature, unreliable and problematic.” Would we invest more resources in such a demographic? Hart notes that while poverty rates for the elderly have gone down over the past 30 years, poverty rates for children have actually increased. In 2011, Americans aged 65 to 75 owned the most wealth and assets of any age group. If we start to live healthfully into our hundreds, presumably the silver-haired share of the national kitty pool will keep growing.
Furthermore, says Hart, research suggests that as the racial and ethnic background of kids diverges from that of older adults—a phenomenon that is unfolding as society sees a boom in black and Hispanic young people—hoarier generations will spend less on education and related social issues. Finally, a recent World Values Survey found that adults are increasingly looking past children for fulfillment, to individualistic goods like self-expression and professional success. In other words, future kids: You may be on your own.
But who even counts (or will count) as a “kid”? And what happens to the limbo period between childhood and adulthood, dependence and autonomy, when time approaches the status of a renewable resource? “There’s always been a tension in American history between absolute chronological age and maturation,” says Susan A. Miller, a professor of childhood studies at Rutgers. “Age has historically been far less relevant than what someone is able to accomplish.” In the 18th century, she continues, a boy who developed quickly, growing strong and tall, was considered ready for a man’s work. A century later, before industrialization took hold, it was not uncommon for 17-year-olds to graduate from Harvard, to go west, to edit city newspapers. Now, that haziness around age versus competence seems to be going in the other direction. Modern young people are testing the limits not of how swiftly they can plunge into adulthood, but of how long they can delay it.
We are positioning the traditional signposts of maturity in different spots along the life journey. We get married later (or not at all). We wait to have children. We live with our parents for longer and spend more time in school. Citing evidence that brain and hormonal development continues well into peoples’ 20s, child psychologists in the United Kingdom recently moved their official cutoff point for adolescence from 18 to 25. So many think pieces and novels and TV shows on “emerging adulthood” have arisen that it would take multiple adulthoods (emerged or otherwise) to consume them all.
According to conventional wisdom, this has nothing to do with lifespan. It means we aren’t giving young people the opportunity to grow up. As countless writers have pointed out, today’s uncertain economy and credentialing arms race make entering the job market unprecedentedly difficult. People need more education to get the positions they want, which can lead them to rely on their parents. Demanding expectations at work can quash dreams of a relationship or a family. The costs of buying a house, of childrearing, are soaring.
But maybe—just maybe—longevity has bequeathed us a bit more flexibility. We’ve got more time to establish ourselves in our careers, to return to school, to meet the right person. Some parents and grandparents might be around longer to support their kids. If youth is a state of exploration and play, perhaps improved life expectancies will allow us to stretch it out past its previous limits. Seventy could be the new 45, 50 the new 21. In the 16th century, Erasmus defined a “prodigy” as “an old head on young shoulders.” A young head on old shoulders, though? What if that’s just 22nd-century normal?