Are We the Last Generation Not to Live Forever?
For as long as humans have been around, for as long as there’s been life on Earth, death has been an inescapable reality. The fixed and final part to any physical existence. But, in the twenty-first century more than ever before, this seemingly immovable truth is being put to the test… so are we now on the brink of beating death rather than accepting it?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; are we the last generation not to live forever?
Are we Generation Death? Will we be the last human beings to die? These are questions that scientists are increasingly asking, as we appear to inch closer and closer to achieving eternal life. A lot depends, of course, on how old you are now. On which other generation you yourself are a part of. The estimates do vary, but as of the early 2020s most suggest that Generation Z could be the first who will gain access to immortality. Wider predictions include the slightly older Millennials as would-be immortals, too. But, unfortunately for Generation X, generally considered to be those born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s, the prospects aren’t as good… with very few estimates extending this far back. Right now, according to the most popular predictions, you need to have been born in the mid-‘80s or later to potentially live forever.
It's not all doom and gloom for Gen Xers, though, and it’s not as though they (or anyone older than them) aren’t predicted to have notably long lives, at least. In the last century, medicine has come so far that the world’s average life expectancy has doubled what it was in the year 1900, when lots of people didn’t live to see their 50s.
Generally speaking, we’re all living longer. And that’s thanks to the twentieth century, which saw an unprecedented acceleration in medical research and technology. Today, we’re better than ever at catching and dealing with diseases. Now, we can vaccinate people, perform organ transplants, and provide antibiotics to cure an ever-growing range of illnesses - including some that may have once been terminal conditions. Plus we’re more clued up on healthy eating and healthy living. For today’s question, though, we have to go further!
One new, increasingly popular piece of technology is CRISPR, a gene-editing technique. And the potential for CRISPR is massive. It could be used to cure previously incurable congenital conditions and possibly even to eradicate cancers. According to some predictions, it might even be used to stop or reverse the ageing process.
Already, there’s a huge industry built around enabling people to feel and appear young, but CRISPR could be the final part of the puzzle. And the most significant part, too. In simple terms, ageing happens because the cells inside your body get worse at repairing themselves over time, deteriorating from your youth and early adulthood into old age. With CRISPR, however, you could preserve your body’s ability to heal effectively. Avoiding not only the ageing process but also, according to some optimistic projections, conditions that more commonly affect us the older we get, like Alzheimer’s disease. The key for today’s question is that CRISPR exists right now and is being studied and used around the world already. It isn’t a hypothetical technology. It’s happening. So by the time Millennials and Gen Z are old enough to worry about the natural effects of ageing, they may be able to apply CRISPR and stop it in its tracks.
CRISPR isn’t our only potential route to immortality, however, and some see cloning as the best way forward. We’ve been able to clone mammals since the 1990s… but if we could, say, master the art of efficiently cloning human organs, we’d be able to save millions of lives every year with custom-made transplants. Theoretically, in a near-future world we might be easily able to replace any and every part of our body that fails - and might even be able to artificially generate younger cells, to halt ageing that way. That’s the idea, anyway… and it’s easy to see why many put their faith in a clone-centric future.
The ethics of cloning are far from straightforward, though. The typical sci-fi scenario sees humans cloning entirely new versions of themselves, and sometimes harvesting those clones for spares. But, even if we had the technology to do that, would it be right? The clone-you will have developed from an embryo, just as you did… with a brain of their own and having grown up in their own way. Which is why clone rights are increasingly debated alongside this growing science. Almost certainly, there would be no way to ethically implant your brain, your memories and personality, into the clone’s new and improved body. Not without breaking any number of laws.
With individual body parts and organs, the general consensus is that it works… but with whole replacement bodies ad infinitum, not likely! Cloning, in this way, doesn’t offer a clear route to continue our own consciousnesses, either. And, at the lowest level, continuity of consciousness, of self, is what we need for immortality. So, for the first generation to exist that doesn’t die, it might be that cloning offers one tool toward eternal life, but not a definitive answer. CRISPR and gene editing looks a better bet for that.
So, if Gen Z really do become the first not to die, then what does our own history tell us about immortality? How has living forever been imagined in the past? The general concept has existed in many cultures around the world for thousands of years, often as some kind of divine reward. The oldest man in the Bible, Methuselah, lived for almost 1,000 years, while various figures in Greek legend have had similar – if more unpleasant – fates. Tithonus, for example, was the lover of the Greek goddess Eos… and was granted immortality by Zeus at the request of Eos because she didn’t want to watch him die. Famously, however, Eos forgot to ask Zeus to also grant Tithonus eternal youth… and, so, the rest of his existence became torture.
Stories surrounding eternal life often come with some form of warning like this. Which leads us to ask; is immortality something we should really be pursuing at all? If it’s not to be for some of us… should we envy the first, future humans who never have to die, or pity them? It’s a question that has traditionally left us divided. What do you think? For followers of various religions, ideas on mortality and the afterlife often form incredibly important aspects of their Faith - so, for many, immortality could provoke more problems than it provides answers to. Regardless of religious or cultural belief, though, many people would say that they simply don’t want to live forever.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the world’s small (but growing) community of immortalists has faced various opposition in the past. While the group isn’t particularly well defined at the moment, these are people from all sections of society working and researching to find ways to extend life. And, while most may not identify as an immortalist exactly, there are growing numbers of doctors and scientists who believe that since the ultimate goal of medicine is to save lives, immortality should be actively pursued and is actually the most moral thing a doctor can do for a patient.
One criticism often levelled at the immortalist way of thinking, though, is that it goes to such great and all-consuming lengths to live longer. Of course, it’s no bad thing to try and improve your diet, or exercise more, with your own longevity in mind. But sceptics warn that in the future we could see people putting themselves forward for more experimental procedures… or subscribing to other, riskier lifestyles, in a bid not to die. And here’s where even the promised land of immortality could perhaps turn into a dystopia, with everyone so committed to never dying that they never actually live their lives normally, at all. Add into the equation that there could well be a financial aspect to how immortality takes shape and takes hold of the human race, too - wherein it’s only available to the very rich - and one of science’s ultimate goals becomes even harder to actually visualise.
At the moment, death comes to us all. In the future, it might not. But perhaps neither will immortality. If you’re watching this video and you’re above the age of 35, living forever might never be an option for you - according to the majority of predictions today. But, for anyone younger, you might possibly see the first immortals in your lifetime. You might even become one. The tech and scientific knowhow could, according to estimates, be with us before the end of the twenty-first century. It just remains to be seen how it will be used. And that’s why we might be the last generation not to live forever.