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Elon Musk’s Bad Take on Longevity

“Zoltan Istvan, an advocate for life extension, has observed in his longevity writings that each human mind is a unique library of information. Every time a person dies, it is like losing the Library of Alexandria.”

Finding out that Elon Musk is against the longevity movement is a little bit like finding out that the Beach Boys hate surfing. It does not make a whole lot of sense. Well, it is true: Elon Musk, champion of many futurist technologies, is no fan of life extension. And this is not just one of his off-the-cuff Twitter takes. Judging by his willingness to expound on the topic in interviews, he appears to have given this quite a lot of thought. 

“I don’t think we should have people live for a very long time,” Musk says in a WELT Documentary interview. “It would cause ossification of society because the truth is, most people don’t change their mind; they just die. And so if they don’t die, we’ll be stuck with old ideas, and society won’t advance. I think we already have quite a serious issue with the gerontocracy, where the leaders of so many countries are extremely old. Look at the U.S.—its very ancient leadership. It’s just impossible to stay in touch with the people if you’re many generations older than them.”

My first thought, hearing this argument, was to admit that there is some truth to it. My next thought was a snarky one: One would think, with this view, Musk would spend his valuable time on Twitter railing against bad policy ideas developed by elderly politicians, but, in fact, he tends to focus on the excesses of the woke. And guess who leads the charge on that? Certainly not the gerontocracy. 

Snarkiness aside, it is not difficult to see the flaws in Musk’s anti-longevity stance. In terms of the gerontocracy ruling American politics, I agree that this is an issue. But the problem is not inherently the age of the politicians. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is now in his 80s, is the political champion of the progressive youth. Meanwhile, millennial Peter Buttigieg utterly failed at capturing support from young voters. It is unfortunate that Senator Sanders is an outlier in this respect. All-too-many politicians fail to represent popular, society-changing values once they have been in the system for too long. Still, this is not an argument against letting people live longer. It is an argument for term limits (which is a good idea irrespective of the longevity movement).

It should be noted that, due to the gerontocracy, there is a very real problem of senility among our politicians. Whether it is former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Senator Chuck Grassley, or (in particular!) Senator Diane Feinstein, we are all correct to wonder whether they suffer from dementia or other mental maladies of old age. But again, senility is a problem that the longevity movement seeks to solve rather than tolerate (as we currently do).

Beyond politics, Elon Musk raises a more general concern about society stagnating if we become overrun with old people. This, also, is not a bad point at first blush. How many 80-year-olds contribute to our cultural, economic, or technological advancement? Not many. Life slows down for the elderly. Their knees give out. Their eyesight goes bad. They retire into their easy chairs. They take their money out of the economy, and it never gets seen from again until it gets converted into someone’s inheritance. 

This is fine up to a point. But countries can only sustain so many old people. Forget about cultural progress; an entire nation can die if it does not have enough young people putting work into building the economy. 

Again, while this is all true, it is missing something in the context of the longevity discussion. If the promises of the longevity movement come true, then people will not just live longer; they will also live longer in healthy, active bodies. Imagine being 90 years old but feeling—mentally and physically—like one is 30 again. Does one truly believe that person would be sitting around all day watching the cooking channel and waiting for grandchildren to call? No way! Chances are, that individual would want to go places and buy things, which requires taking an active role in the economy.

If this is not the case—that is, if the first ageless generation is full of people who, in fact, do want to sit around watching the cooking channel—we absolutely will, as a society, put in place policies to spur economic contributions from the elderly-cum-ageless. They may not like being “forced” back to work, in one capacity or another, but what would they rather do instead…get frail and die? With a soft touch of social engineering, it would not be long before it would be totally normalized for a late-in-life person to start a second, third, fourth, or fifth career.

Even if Musk is correct and society does ossify to some degree due to life extension, we should not overlook the benefits of the elderly. Zoltan Istvan, an advocate for life extension, has observed in his longevity writings that each human mind is a unique library of information. Every time a person dies, it is like losing the Library of Alexandria. Why would we ever let these priceless libraries vanish from the universe if we had the choice? 

In the WELT interview, Musk is asked, “How old would you like to get?” Coming after Musk’s comments against longevity, it is a provocative question. His response: “For me, I certainly would like to maintain health for a longer period of time, but I’m not afraid of dying. I think it will come as a relief.”

This perspective is not too far off from the longevity agenda. A fear of death is not really the point of longevity; rather, it is a love of life. The objective to maintain health “for a longer period of time” drives the longevity movement. As someone who values life and health and looks forward to more of it in the future, perhaps Musk is more of a friend to the longevity movement than he is willing to acknowledge.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. He can be found on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke

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