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So we'll live to age 100. Now what?

So we'll live to age 100. Now what?

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Scientific advancements will help us live to 100 and beyond. With so many elderly people around, how will society cope? Author Sonia Arrison weighs in at The Economist's Human Potential conference.

NEW YORK CITY -- Thanks to scientific advancements, we'll live longer than ever before. But who will manage us?

Speaking at The Economist's Human Potential conference, author Sonia Arrison said we're not ready for the massive social and economic implications of living longer.

But the possibilities are both tantalizing and terrifying.

LONGEVITY TECH

Arrison, who most recently authored 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith, said a number of new technologies are helping human beings extend their lives, including tissue engineering and three-dimensional printers that can reproduce organs on demand.

"Scientists all over the world are working on growing different parts -- hearts, lungs," she said. "You can imagine that if you [take this] huge parts list you can [switch your parts in and out as needed]."

These come on top of incremental improvements to lifespan, such as eating right, exercising and not smoking, she said.

"Most of our gains so far have come from advances in the beginning of life -- fighting disease, exercise nutrition. Now we're starting to look at problems at the end of life. How do we replace parts that are breaking down? The science of that has become an engineering problem."

THE ELDERLY EFFECT

But if the Earth can barely support its existing human population, how will it support so many more? And how will the markets adapt to the change?

Arrison said the effects are manifold and complex. For one, it's less of a problem than most would suspect, thanks to declining population growth rates and fertility rates.

"Really heavy population growth comes from births, not deaths," she said.

And what of the workplace? With so many more seasoned veterans in the workforce, will innovation slow?

Au contraire, Arrison said -- research shows that innovation is actually a late-peak field.

"It's possible that, as we have more people living healthier and longer -- and health is the key, because if you're not healthy you can't do anything -- then we actually have a huge human potential for many more innovations to make the world a better place," she said, predicting an "explosion of knowledge" from retaining society's wisest members for a longer period of time.

And that's not to say the expected timeline of human development won't shift, either. As life expectancy has increased, so has the age at which couples get married and have children. Advancements in fertility technology could help this keep pace with longevity, she said.

"You can also imagine people having children early and putting off their career for later because they can," she said. "It's diversity in life choice. You'll have so much more time to do things with your life."

THE SUPPORT NETWORK

While longevity may make the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services happy, it's cause for concern for the U.S. Social Security Administration -- whose dwindling reserves face an even larger obligation.

Simply: how will government pay for so many elderly?

"Clearly, no one will be retiring at age 65," Arrison said. "That may not even be possible today. They'll have to change their definition of retirement."

The concept of retraining older workers for new jobs will also play a major role, she said.

"There will certainly be more people around in different age brackets, and that expands labor markets," she said. "There will be different markets [that emerge] that didn't exist before."

That doesn't count new markets that could appear or expand to better fulfill individuals' search for meaning and purpose in life. For example, religions may shift from a focus on the afterlife to a focus on purpose during one's lifetime, to keep followers engaged, she said.

On the other hand, intergenerational conflict will be more prevalent than ever, especially in the workplace, she said.

"Intergenerational issues will be something that companies find themselves dealing with," she said. "Imagine having someone working who's 120 and then you have a 20-year-old come in."

THE ECONOMIC CHALLENGES

Perhaps the greatest challenge that governments will have to face is the possibility that the gap between poor and rich grows ever wider, with corresponding lifespans, Arrison said.

"The wealthy always get access to new technology first. They put up upfront capital," she said. "The question is, how long is the lag between the leading edge and the lagging edge? How long does it take for this technology to be distributed evenly?"

One upside: the widespread adoption of new technology occurs ever faster.

"If medical technologies, which are fast becoming information technologies, move in that way then maybe it won't be as much of a crisis as it can be," Arrison said. "People may literally fight for their lives. It's worrisome."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure