Living to a 150

Some politicians are making big claims about longevity to justify their health and social policies. Are our politicians on the far right simply fantasizing about living longer? Is this why they tell us good health investment should be directed towards curative research alone while everything else to do with health is lying under a precariously balanced metaphorical bread knife. How would you like that sliced – thin or sandwich?  From a cynic’s point of view this claim might simply be about appealing to the core of individualism and what’s in it for me? An old tactic repackaged.

Sure many scientists are making claims about future generations reaching incredible ages but I am sure they will agree at this point in time these are theories not proven fact, possible, even likely, but still theoretical.  Certainly our average life expectancy has risen as health care and living conditions have improved. Hans Rosling is very entertaining on this issue.

It is a fact that better access to health services and better living and working conditions improve the overall health of a population. One day some people might live to 150 but these results depend on future discoveries and advancements in biological interventions such as gene therapy. Such projections are speculative and assume scientific progress will continue uninterrupted and treatments will be equally affordable and available to everyone. Living longer, if indeed we do, might be the privilege of some people and not others depending on the social policies we choose to adopt.

My argument goes like this. In my opinion, human beings have always been a pretty arrogant lot. We really do believe we are superior – to other animals, climate etc etc.  We particularly hang on to the belief that we can tame nature and we do – to a point. How many examples of nature doing what it does, do we need to show us that although we might be on top for a while it won’t necessarily last – at least not without some counter reaction. A prime example is antibiotic use and the development of antibiotic resistance . When we triumph over one disease, a new one seems to emerge to take its place – smallpox, AIDS, Ebola, take your pick.  According to one recent study, although average life expectancy is higher, this generation has a different set of health issues – more metabolic disease.   The effect of this shift in disease on our future life expectancy is unknown but can be hypothesised. We already know the long term impact of these diseases on our health but on the other hand we don’t know the influence of future medical treatments yet to be discovered and made available.

There are other factors to consider when contemplating our longevity. We have known for some time health is more than biological and that social factors and social policies impact on our health.  We only need to look at work on inequality and studies on the health of particular, improverished populations such as the people who live in the Gorbals, south of the river Clyde in Glasgow.

Alarmingly social policies and where governments choose to invest does influence longevity and health. We only need to look at health outcomes for Indigenous peoples in places like Australia and Canada and recent findings that life expectancy has reduced in some areas of the UK. This backward shift is being linked to the reduction of services that maintain health and well-being. Even if some people manage to live to 150 it may not happen for everyone equally. Assuming good genes and discoveries in curative and genetic medicine, all people will still need access to good healthcare. The seeming dominance of far right ideologies that promote policies of user pays, a sole focus on individual responsibilities, privatisation and purely biological approaches to health combined with a failure to address inequalities will continue to negatively impact on the health of many people. It will mean only those who can afford access to services will reap health benefits.

Sure average life expectancy has improved but has the end point actually changed? We have always had centenarians and a very few sparky souls that live to extraordinary ages, a rare few reported to be a 120 or slightly more.

This is not new and I doubt if modern medicine has had too much to do with it. Perhaps someone can answer this for me – have we actually extended our lives beyond the upper limit of our bodies’ use-by date? To put this simply, has the oldest age anybody has ever lived actually changed? Is there an upward trend at that upper limit? Difficult question as many long lives are unverifiable. I don’t think so – it may come but it will depend on more than biology and must include the social. Perhaps also there is a certain truth in that when we cure one thing, something else emerges – whether this is disease, the impact of climate change or even the stuff people are pumping into their bodies to at least appear younger. For the moment, future generations living to a 150 remains predictive and speculative. We all need a better approach to health than one based on profit or policies that make it harder for people to access healthcare or improve their lives. And so if it does come true and we manage one-day to live past our current use-by date, I hope it comes true for everyone not just a few.

Will we still need social workers in 2050?

It’s hard to imagine what 2050 is going to look like. When you think about it, film and the science fiction literature have made a fair attempt at predicting our future. In a 1949 comedy, Ma and Pa Kettle won a futuristic house in a competition. The technology created havoc for this family of fifteen children – but in the end the human element beat the technology. In the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera brought us The Jetsons’ futuristic lifestyle. Skipping a few decades, A Hand Maiden’s Tale and Surrogates brought dire messages about human fertility and robot technology. More recently the Swedish production Real Humans (which I loved by the way) brought issues of social justice, discrimination, inclusion and robot rights for us to think about – interesting when you think about the way we treat people today. One social work scholar, Antonio Lopez Palaez, has written about social work, society and how our future lives will be so entwined with those of robots we won’t be able to live without them.

Working with robots

Scientists tell us there will be no accidents with driverless cars, no organ and food shortages because we’ll grow what we need in Petri dishes. Maybe even babies will be made in artificial wombs according to our specifications. Disabling conditions and diseases will be genetically engineered out of existence (more movies come to mind). So there goes a few social work roles but maybe some new ones as well. Chips in the paintwork on our cars and houses will repair themselves. Care of older people will no longer worry governments as robots will do all the physical care as well as be our social companions. We won’t be naked because our computers will be in our clothes and jewellery. Our clothes and accessories will tell us what to eat, when to eat, monitor our health and remind us to take our medication. Of course we will all be on medication because every negative human emotion will be in the DSM psychiatric diagnostic manual and supposedly be treatable (1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley come to mind). ‘Feeling’ our partners from a distance will become a reality because our clothes will have sensors. We’ll probably only need to give the homeless one set of clothes because clothes will be self-cleaning.

That brings us to the disenfranchised of the world. We will still have ‘the poor’ because it is highly unlikely all people will have equal access to technology when they already lag behind. Inequality in the world is increasing (check out Richard Wilkinson on the See & Hear page]. It remains to be seen if only a few people in a few countries will hold all the power or whether pockets of resistance and innovation will do better in a world where monopolies, climate change and weather events are destined to get worse.  I’m betting on resistance and surprises.  Climate will be different and animal species extinct. More poverty, more refugees and greater extremes in politics and government as well as the weather are likely. Will we really be free of disease given the rise of anti-vaccination enthusiasts, the return of diseases once eradicated, the evolution of viruses, bacteria and other microscopic things? Perhaps we will also evolve. Our butts will get bigger from sitting on them (mine already has!) and we might look quite different because of our environment and interaction with technology…and of course there’s plastic surgery.

So what about social work? No world is perfect and humans have never been good at learning from past mistakes. People will still suffer, grieve and experience difficulties and more than likely new problems will arise. Structural barriers and inequalities are not showing any signs of going away. In some countries we seem to be returning to the 1800s with charity models and concepts of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ making a come-back in a big way.  Individualism and consumerism seem to determine who is rewarded or punished. In most societies, the treatment of the marginalised and those seeking refuge leave a lot to be desired. As long as there are humans, social work will be needed. We might have to work with robots as well as people but as long as we stay in touch with our values of human rights and social justice and stay innovative, social work will continue to exist. Social workers have a voice and a lot to say and most importantly do great work. We need to adapt and ensure future social workers continue to be educated at a high standard to practice what we do best. Check back with me in 2050 if I’m still here and let me know how we got on.

Listen to Antonio López Peláez on social work and robots on Podsocs

Also check out Michael Reisch talking about the future of social work on Podsocs