Conversations in Management: 2,000 Year Old Man

“I have over 42,000 children — and not one comes to visit me.”

 The 2,000 Year Old Man.

Old_ManWhat started as an impromptu comedy routine for friends turned into five albums and a TV show for comedians Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. It was funny stuff, but 50 years later The 2,000 Year Old Man is about to become a reality. Well, maybe not a 2,000 year old man, but one who’s age is nearly as astounding.  According to Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge gerontologist and chief science officer of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation, the first person who’ll live to be 1,000 is already walking the planet.

de Grey regards ageing as a treatable disease. He argues by identifying the molecular and cellular damage that’s caused by simply being alive, we can make timely repairs and prevent additional problems. He likens it to doing preventive maintenance on a car. de Grey believes that within six to eight years, we’ll have therapies available that, “are going to be good enough to take middle age people, say people aged 60, and rejuvenate them thoroughly enough so they won’t be biologically 60 again until they are chronologically 90.” That gives scientists 30 years to figure out how to, “rejuvenate them when they are chronologically 90 so they won’t be biologically 60 for a third time until they are 120 or 150.” And so it goes for another 850 years.

Crazy as it may sound, it’s just reasonable enough to have some people worried. Employers, in particular, are concerned about funding retirements that might last 935 years. On the other hand, nervous workers are afraid that retirement age might be bumped up to, say, 970. That’s a lot of extra years in a cubicle.  There’s also a social aspect to this. While our own intellectual, emotional and spiritual qualities may be worthy of a thousand year tenure, not everyone is so endowed. What about that jerk who cut you off in traffic, or the haughty barista, or the officemate who won’t shut up? Do we really want to spend hundreds of years with these guys? What about our kids? Will they be biologically rejuvenated to teenagers every thirty years? Centuries of parent-teacher conferences and incessant demands for allowance increases will be enough to make anyone pine for an old-fashioned lifespan. Then there’s the boredom. Just how long can we watch the ageing Housewives or the geriatric Kardashians? Not to worry de Grey tells us, “just think about all the films you haven’t seen, all the books you haven’t read.” True enough, but when someone like Stephen Hawking says he’d consider assisted suicide if he felt he had nothing more to contribute to science, what does that imply for the rest of us on our thousand year journey?

But this is where de Grey reminds of us of something we too often forget—the future will be different than today. Our notions of family, work and play will be transformed 100, 200 or a 1,000 years from now. We need only to look to our past to see that it’s true. When confronted by the inevitable “what if” objections to his vision, de Grey simply defers to the future for answers. It’s a good approach. Maybe it’s an approach we should take to daily living as well. We defer too many things to a future we imagine but that might never come about. When we do that we start thinking small, stop taking risks and miss opportunities. Our futures are only as exciting as we permit them to be. Mercifully, it doesn’t take 1,000 years of experience to figure that out. —Ebert

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