What if we all died at forty?

by on April 12, 2013 at 12:10 pm in Economics, Philosophy | Permalink

Akka emails me:

I think one of the things that make planning (and living) life so hard is the combination of the facts  that

  1. Its end date is uncertain
  2. It is rather highly likely that one’s faculties will be duller towards the end.

If it was certain that when we sleep on our 40th birthday, we wouldn’t wake up, how different would the world be? Economically? Culturally? Will it be more peaceful? More left leaning?

One question is how child-bearing norms will evolve.  There will be considerable pressure to have kids at age eighteen or so.  (It might be considered unethical to have a child at age thirty-five, although if the fertility rate falls enough the economy might shift heavily into orphanages and this could be considered virtuous nonetheless.)  I predict many people would become much stricter in their morals and more religious, and they will have children quite early.

Other people would attempt to maintain a collegiate lifestyle through their death at age forty.  There would be a polarization of outcomes and approaches to life.  Old age as an equalizer, and as an enforcer of responsible savings behavior, would be gone.

The likelihood of warfare would rise, if only because the sage elderly won’t be around and male hormones will run rampant.

Credit would be harder to come by and the rate of home ownership would fall.  The rate of voting turnout will go down, as would the degree of wealth inequality and the amount of innovation.  Federal discretionary spending, as a percentage of the budget, would rise.

We can look at data from Huntington’s Disease, for instance see the Oster, Shoulson, and Dorsey paper.  Only five to ten percent of potential carriers choose to learn whether they will have the disease, even though the cost of the test is low.  That suggests knowledge of a finite horizon is itself costly and a source of discomfort.  Those who learn they will encounter bad fates from the disease are more likely to divorce, more likely to get pregnant, and much more likely to report significant financial changes and changes in recreational activities.  Of course these are solo individuals embedded in societies with normal life expectancies; if everyone were to meet an early untimely end I believe the (partial and polarized) shift toward conservative and religious norms would be much stronger.

Joe Smith April 12, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I predict:
1) lots of irresponsible sex by people over thirty-five
2) lots of crimes, including murder, by people in the days before their fortieth birthday.

Thor April 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Why? Settling of scores, last minute?

Funnily enough, most violent crimes are committed by those under 30. Do you think that would change?

Nathan Goldblum April 13, 2013 at 6:51 am

Yeah. Young people commit crimes because they haven’t calibrated their discouting factor properly yet. However, as you approach 40, your time discounting factor should rise immensely in this scenario because of the finite horizon. If you’re fast approaching 40, the only thing to stop you from killing that boss of yours that you’ve despised for a long time is morals – and morals aren’t really that strong a motivation.

Tom West April 13, 2013 at 8:47 am

I don’t see a lot of people with terminal cancer going on rampages (except in fiction).

The huge majority of us are generally decent people who don’t like hurting others, even when there are no consequences. Few want their legacy to be hatred and loathing, and the vast majority of those who are consumed by hatred have either ready acted upon those desires long before age 40 or will never do so.

gwern April 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm

> I don’t see a lot of people with terminal cancer going on rampages (except in fiction).

There’s an obvious reason why that might be.

mishka April 13, 2013 at 4:37 pm

> The huge majority of us are generally decent people who don’t like hurting others, even when there are no consequences.

Yes, the history of XX century certainly teaches us that…

Joshua Gans April 12, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Logan’s Run, movie and TV series. Everyone died at 30.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074812/

Seemed like a socialist utopia would happen from that movie.

Benny Lava April 12, 2013 at 2:06 pm

You beat me to it!

Brad April 12, 2013 at 2:21 pm

In the book you only lived to 21.

Hedonic Treader April 12, 2013 at 4:37 pm

If I remember the movie correctly, reproduction is regulated and production automated. Such a world may fall short of its potential, but is clearly positive for its inhabitants during their lives.

What struck me as bizarre was the concept of “Renewal” and how faulty its philosophical assumptions are – if your memory is wiped and your personality reset, you are no longer you and might just as well be replaced by a new happy person.

Matthew White April 17, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Interesting, but aren’t there many current religions that believe just that. That souls are reincarnated up and down chains of being with no memory from one embodiment to another. Not that it makes it less weird, but it does make it more plausible. It recall that Renewal is a lie. No one was ever Renewed, it was just something to get the people in those domed cities to believe while they had there every need catered to. I was under 30 once myself. I would have believed this tripe if I also got all the free sex, drugs, and entertainment I wanted.

Allen Varney April 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm

The likelihood of war would rise? Really? Most wars in recent history were initiated and managed by senior-citizen plutocrats.

Some aspects of this thought problem depend on whether this limited lifespan has been the case throughout history, or whether its onset is modern. If no one had ever survived beyond 40 in all history, it seems unlikely we’d have moved beyond Bronze Age tribalism, let alone developed credit cards.

Ape Man April 12, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I will grant you the point about elderly being behind a lot of wars. But I still think that Taylor’s point about violence in general is correct.

I hate to say it, but there is a lot of men in their thirties that I would not trust around any woman I cared about if they knew for a fact that they were going to die in a few years. More broadly, I can come up with plenty of anecdotes from history that demonstrates that young healthy males who feel they have no future will often do reckless and violent things.

collin April 12, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Why would more wars occur? Aren’t the young the loudest critics of national war.

However, local violence and the gangster lifestyle would become much more rapamant although I do agree that religous dedictation would go through the roof. That might be the reason for more war as George Carlin once noted most wars are started because somebody had the wrong answer to the God questions: 1) Do you believe in God? 2) Do you believe in my God?

Bernard Guerrero April 12, 2013 at 1:50 pm

The young tend to be the loudest critics of getting shot in faraway places on behalf of nebulous causes they may or may not benefit from personally. OTOH, they tend to be the most willing to engage in interpersonal violence and petty theft. This implies that the *aims* of war might tend to shift, away from stuff like “upholding Westphalian sovereignty” and towards more blatant “smash & grab”.

On a perhaps not unrelated note, I’m very much enjoying the series “Vikings”…..

Thor April 12, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Don’t forget most contemporary accounts, let alone films and mini-series, on the Vikings focus on the more exciting, violent and salacious details. They were traders, explorers, settlers and farmers as well as marauders, pillagers and slavers, etc.

A look at their arts and crafts, and ability to stay in an area, and integrate, will reveals these other less obvious aspects.

So Much for Subtlety April 12, 2013 at 8:44 pm

I always wonder about claims like this. At risk of Godwin’s law, I wonder how much of this applies to the Wehrmacht. Most contemporary accounts, let alone films and mini-series, on the Germans in World War Two focus on the more exciting, violent and salacious details. They were traders, explorers, settlers and farmers as well as marauders, pillagers and slavers, etc. A look at their arts and crafts, and ability to stay in an area, and integrate, will reveals these other less obvious aspects.

There is an absurd strain of political correctness that ignores the actual evidence in favor of some softer, Sesame Street version of history. In reality the Vikings did what everyone at the time said they did – they killed people and took their property. They were so good at it they kept chunks of other people’s countries. And like the Wehrmacht, they had children wherever they went by one means or another.

There is a reason why contemporary accounts focus on the death and destruction.

Bernard Guerrero April 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

The young tend to be the loudest critics of getting shot in faraway places on behalf of nebulous causes they may or may not benefit from personally. OTOH, they tend to be the most willing to engage in interpersonal violence and petty theft. This implies that the *aims* of war might tend to shift, away from stuff like “upholding Westphalian sovereignty” and towards more blatant “smash & grab”.

On a perhaps not unrelated note, I’m very much enjoying the series “Vikings”.

So Much for Subtlety April 12, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Everywhere except the modern West, young people tend to be the loudest supporters of all sorts of violence – including those that involve getting shot in faraway places on behalf of nebulous causes they may or may not benefit from personally. In the modern West, it is likely that they are opposed to mainstream campaigns in lands faraway because they are generally in favor of more extreme ideologies. That is, they would prefer to carry out vastly more political violence at home than overseas. Lyndon Johnson tried to restrain the violence of the Vietnam War. Ho Chi-minh and Pol Pot did not. Nor did the Weather Underground. The young came to support the more violent totalitarian alternative, not the more modern democratic mainstream.

A situation which has persisted.

ACS April 26, 2013 at 2:13 am

I cannot even imagine how to hammer this into a coherent argument worth responding to. It’s the exact inverse of Chomskyan motive attribution: you take the worst possible motive that anyone supporting a position had, attribute it to a large number of people, add an implicit moral judgement, and sit back smugly, arms folded.

We did nothing about Pol Pot. We did not go to war with Cambodia, but we bombed cross-border VC outposts. We went to war to support France’s colonial government in Vietnam, which was in some ways less bad than Ho Chi-minh, but which would have had to do a decade of vicious and indiscriminate anticommunist purges to return to stability. We killed an enormous number of Vietnamese, most of them civilians, by sending an enormous number of Americans to die.

People were opposed to that.

Because they were the people being sent to die.

This is not an extreme ideology. This is rational self-interest.

Hazel Meade April 12, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Most wars in recent history were initiated and managed by senior-citizen plutocrats.

Well, yeah. The closer you are to death, the lower the cost to you personally for starting a war. Senior-citizen plutocrats start wars because (a) they want to be remembered, and (b) they are going to die soon anyway.

If we all died at 40s, we’d start wars when we hit 35.

BCC April 12, 2013 at 8:16 pm

This is close to what I was thinking. A society’s leadership is generally dominated by its oldest members; wars are managed by the oldest because they are the oldest, not because they are old.

So Much for Subtlety April 13, 2013 at 8:13 am

This is interesting but there is no reason to think it is true. Wars are not started by the old. They may be managed by them, but they are not started by them. Wars are strongly associated with bulges of young men moving through the population. When a country has a disproportionately large number of such young men, it is more likely to go to war. Aging populations are no threat to anyone.

Senior citizens obviously have a lot to lose in wartime – all their assets. And old people have a lot of assets. Young men have less to lose, apart from their lives. Indeed they stand to gain from any revolution or invasion or other outbreak of violence, because they will use the chance as an excuse to take what they like from the old.

jc April 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm

wasn’t there a version of this in the middle ages when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today? religious norms were much stronger-males especially also seemed to engage in much more short-term violent behavior than today.

“Federal discretionary spending, as a percentage of the budget, would rise.” lol.

Kurt April 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Nah, life expectancy was not that much lower if you made it to adulthood. The average was only so low due to high infant mortality.

gwern April 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Indeed. You’d still have a very wide spread of possible death dates – if you made it to, say, 40, then making it to 80 was a nontrivial possibility.

I’ll offer my own thoughts:

1. medical spending would plummet massively. A huge chunk of spending is done by 40+.
2. the entire finance sector would likewise plummet: much saving, investing, insurance, etc is done solely to spread out consumption and insure against shocks later in life. If later in life doesn’t exist, it’s better to consume now.
3. Real estate would change. If you will die at age 40, how do things like 20 year mortgages make sense? Home ownership doesn’t seem like a very useful goal in such a society. I’m not really sure how this would shake out… maybe most buildings would be owned by things like REIT and almost everyone would rent?

JWatts April 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I’m not really sure how this would shake out… maybe most buildings would be owned by things like REIT and almost everyone would rent?

That’s assuming that anyone would build much in the way of permanent structures. Certainly long work hours would plummet after age 30 or 35. And generally, in a lot of professions, you don’t start getting good at it till you hit your 30′s. So I suspect pretty much all professional knowledge would rapidly deteriorate.

Higher education would be drastically reduced. There wouldn’t be a whole lot of people wanting to spend 10 years getting a PhD. And for those that did and wanted to teach, they wouldn’t have a whole lot of years left to keep teaching. And obviously you wouldn’t see a lot of people in their 30′s going back to college.

And I would agree that men in their 30′s would tend to become more violent. Perhaps religion would eventually act as a social binding to control this, but I’m skeptical.

Shane M April 13, 2013 at 11:14 am

Along these lines, I was thinking a lot fewer years spent in school. Doesn’t make sense to spend 20 yrs in school to only have 10 years left…

Grant April 29, 2013 at 6:37 am

Seems you need to spend a few more years in school Shane. 20 + 10 = 30.

Bret April 12, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Wasn’t that the premise of Jitterbug Perfume?

Highgamma April 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

The following phrase would become ubiquitous:
“There’s nothing more dangerous than a 39 1/2 year-old man.”

Clarke April 12, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Plenty of historical data on this die-by-40 musing, across the planet.

Even in Colonial America life expectancy at birth was barely 40, though (of course) more than a few exceeded the median.
By 1900 in America, the average was only 47 years.

Some 110 Billion humans ever took a breath on this planet — most didn’t survive long.
The “Human Condition” hasn’t really changed much in existential terms.

Blending metaphysics into economics seems as odd excursion here. Why 40 (?)… why not 20 ?

Michael April 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm

life expectancy at birth at birth isn’t the best measure. Often, if you just made it through childhood, you were generally OK. You’d have to look at a measure that didn’t average out all those dead babies with older adults. They do exist.

Also, you don’t have to look into the past for this sort of thing. You could probably find similar numbers in places like Zambia.

Michael April 13, 2013 at 9:54 am

There were a fair number of elderly in New England during the colonial period. One of my ancestors was Ebeezer Cobb, who lived in three centuries.

http://tinyurl.com/cjtfy7s

TMC April 13, 2013 at 11:35 am

Good for Ebeenzer! The first and second wives did not have very long lives, though. The first I’d guess died in childbirth, but the second would be a bit old for that (26, and 48). Interesting that the first person born on the Mayflower lived to 84.

Tom Chryst April 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Another interesting thought experiment for you, Tyler, what would change economically if no one ever died?

Mulp April 13, 2013 at 11:41 am

not that far from reality, in a few centuries’ time.

RPLong April 12, 2013 at 12:47 pm

One interesting aspect of TC’s response is how it shifts between perfect- and conditional-future tense.

Hazel Meade April 12, 2013 at 1:02 pm

predict many people would become much stricter in their morals and more religious, and they will have children quite early.

I predict the opposite. They may have kids early, but as they approach 40 they will start behaving more recklessly and with lower morals. Think of it in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma. The lower the probability that your interactions with others will never be repeated, the greater your incentive to defect.

As people approach 40, the likelyhood will then rise that they will engage in criminal or hedonistic behavior. Society mgiht respond by punishing their children for their parents misbehavior, so they would have an incentive to remain cooperative.

Claudia April 12, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Funny, I recently caught myself wondering if now having a diagnosis with an elevated risk of premature death should affect my life choices (beyond the obvious of doing things to minimize that risk). It seems like an odd adjustment to me but statistics from my condition have been used by others to justify changes. (Of course, MBAs using statistics is often a train wreck.)

As for this scenario, the big change to me seems to be the determinism…there’s a lot of utility and planning efficiency to be gained from knowing the exact amount of time left. I suspect that would have more impact than the shorter life span. Otherwise, it’s just a few less iterations in the dynamic programming problem of life.

Peter April 12, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Speaking from personal experience (had a cancer scare for four months), no as it’s just too abstract and “far” though I guess it depends what your percentages are. It’s also personality as I’m not good with risk based personal decisions (even worse so than most people) whereas I have no problem with absolutes and fixed schedules no matter how bad. It’s actually a gripe I have with doctors, their refusal to commit to a definitive answers or timeline. I would vastly prefer to be pleasantly surprised (You will be dead in 3 months) than prematurely dead (You have a 99% chance of being dead in three months and then I finding out tomorrow I’m going to die in twenty minutes). It’s why we can handle the terminal condition called life so well, death is always far and percentile changes for the most part leave it as far via cognitive bias.

Michael April 12, 2013 at 1:38 pm

There are notions of this in Development Economics, aren’t there? In places filled with poverty, war, and disease, there’s a good chance you’ll die young. That’s supposedly a mechanism for why you don’t see as much forward-looking behavior. Why spend all those years in school if you won’t use the education long before you die? Why save/invest as much if you’re not going to live to use it?

Out of curiosity, you should compare your predictions to what is observed in countries with really low life expectancies.

zbicyclist April 12, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Several commenters have made a similar point, but I think there’s a huge difference between having a low life expectancy (but also some chance of living to an old age) and the certainty of dying at 40.

To me, the certainty scenario is more like getting married on Saturday (so a bachelor party on Thursday), or having been accepted at a good college (and so blowing off the second semester of your senior year).

I think the overall reproductive rate would be very low, because one of the reasons to have children is historically to have them take care of you in your old age, when you can’t take care of yourself. If old age isn’t going to come, some of the motivation for having children disappears.

F. Lynx Pardinus April 12, 2013 at 1:49 pm

“While otherworldly compensation in terms of salvation and spiritual benefits motivates religiosity, the costs of formal religion in terms of time allocated to communal activities and foregone income work in the opposite direction. We show that higher life expectancy discounts expected benefits in the afterlife and is hence likely to lead to postponement of religiosity.”
http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk//economics/papers/dp0912.pdf

babar April 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm

what if people only lived one millisecond?

Mulp April 13, 2013 at 11:42 am

W…

Julian April 12, 2013 at 1:55 pm

If we had *evolved* knowing we’d die at 40, we’d also have very different preferences, leading to different institutions and culture. Not the same as if everyone suddenly started dying at 40, with preferences and institutions that evolved for an uncertain end.

zbicyclist April 13, 2013 at 12:44 am

I keep trying to use plants (annuals, biannuals) and animals (17 year cicadas, insects that die in the fall) as analogues, but failing because humans have “choices”.

But maybe this is yet another case in which human “free will” isn’t really the defining difference it seems to be at first.

Plants/animals with defined life cycles tend to be very concerned with reproduction. But I think I am looking at this from the wrong end. If they had a defined, relatively short lifetime and weren’t very concerned with reproduction, they would be extinct by now or rare. So perhaps with a shorter, defined lifetime humans would have very low reproductive rates and, if not going extinct, occupy less of the planet’s resources. Might be a good thing for the overall health of the planet — fewer but more hedonic humans.

Careless April 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm

I don’t think you quite get how evolution works

Benny Lava April 12, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I believe that in Russia the average life expectancy for men is like 57. To my knowledge this is not caused by infant mortality. So that might be a good template?

Peter April 12, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Russia is a bad example for the same reason history is a bad example, they are dying in middle age for perfectly preventable reasons. My wife is Russian and (no hyperbole) every man and women in her family (and their friends) was either dead by 45 or lived to 80. Basically those that don’t drink themselves to death (a large number) live normal lives.

Jacob April 12, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Tyler, did you just hit upon a Hansonian insight that the decline of “farmer morals” might be connected directly to increasing lifespans?

Bryan Willman April 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I think the issue of “if you survived youth mortality” does skew the numbers, but sort of random distributions of deaths leading to a median length of life of around 40 wasn’t *so* different from various historical realities.

The hypothetical removes the influence of wise or foolish survivors (no grandparents wise or stupid) and likely puts severe emtional pressure on humans as currently evolved.

Things like ‘savings’ only make sense when there’s any real surplus to save past, say, the coming winter.

Why is it that people who conjecture wild world changes like this assume that in such a world, the US or any country still exists? Or that the religions that emerge will have any particular relationship to current popular religions?

BillM April 12, 2013 at 2:52 pm

“The likelihood of warfare would rise, if only because the sage elderly won’t be around and male hormones will run rampant.”

Yeah, LBJ, Nixon, Dubya, Cheney, Billary & Dronebama are the sage elderly.

Agreed with the comment that there would almost certainly be more, perhaps much more violence, due to men in their late 30s knowing they had little consequences to fear, but there sure wouldn’t be an increase in “formal” wars.

It’s the “elderly” who are so “sage” in convincing people under the age of 40 to fight such wars.

Alan H April 13, 2013 at 12:52 am

Nixon started or built up a war? The old starting wars: “A Separate Peace.” (And everyone dies, but at 60 -”Brave New World.”)

jmo April 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm

I predict many people would become much stricter in their morals and more religious

I think you underweight the percentage of religious people who are religious because they feel God can intervene in the lives on men. When everyone dies at forty, no matter how good or bad, no matter how much or how little they pray, very few will be religious.

Brian April 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm

It seems to me that you’ve missed the main point of the question – the interesting question is not about what happens when we all die at forty, but what happens when people know when they’ll die. For example, repeat this exercise, but with everyone dying at 80.

JWatts April 12, 2013 at 5:52 pm

+3, the actual age probably isn’t as relevant as the certainty. As long as there’s hope you’ll live a lot longer (no matter how risky your lifestyle/health) it’s going to restrict your behavior. Tell some one healthy that they’ll die in one year no matter what and many will start taking revenge on ‘live’ for being unfair.

Nigel April 12, 2013 at 6:45 pm

A lot of unwarranted assumptions, I think.

Impossible to predict whether religious observation would increase, as that would depend very much on the society you started with. What might be true for the US is a great deal less likely to apply to (for instance the UK).

Here’s a few counter-assumptions

Family structures would of necessity alter, with advanced economies seeing a re-emergence of strong extended family groups – a means of solving the problems both of childcare and credit. Mortgages, for instance, becoming the responsibility of family groups rather than individuals; orphaned children would be brought up by aunts, uncles and cousins.
Extended family structures would tend to perpetuate wealth inequalities, too.

I see no good reason why innovation should stagnate; quite possibly the opposite.
The huge amount of capital and economic effort tied up in caring for the elderly would be redeployed – at least some of it productively. Childcare would be easier to come by.

Quite what would happen to politics is difficult to predict. It would certainly be more volatile – old ideas would die out really. Term limits would become a little unnecessary. the voting age might drop to sixteen.
Judgement would be at a premium, as forty years is little enough time to acquire wisdom, and you’d have to (for example) appoint Supreme Court judges in their early thirties.
The study of history would be significantly more important than it is today.

The cigarette industry would undergo a renaissance.

Nigel April 12, 2013 at 7:00 pm

“would die out really”

(edit) Kind of makes sense, but should have been “would die out early”.

Millian April 12, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Talk to me like I’m naive: why would religiosity increase?

Skye Winspur April 12, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Psalm 90:10 reads: “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong,” suggesting that the chances of living past 80 in ancient Israel were very very low.

Under this scenario I would expect that old-time religion in general would become more popular, but whether people actually lived up to its moral demands is another question (see Jeremiah for much evidence to the contrary).

Skye Winspur April 12, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Furthermore, language would change faster, as greybeards wouldn’t be around to set an example for how to speak: English might go through a leap comparable to that between Beowulf and Shakespeare.

BCC April 12, 2013 at 8:20 pm

I find it difficult to believe that this scenario would have no effect on food trucks. Would they become more popular? Less so? Would innovation and variety increase or decrease? The answers are not immediately obvious to me.

Alex Godofsky April 13, 2013 at 4:05 am

That was beautiful. Thank you.

Roger Stevens April 12, 2013 at 8:27 pm

What if we all died at 140, 1,400… ? Would it make a difference?

Shane M April 14, 2013 at 7:04 am

Are you suggesting it wouldn’t matter? I’d live very differently if I knew I my life was already over 2 yrs ago vs. having a century left to go.

Antares April 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm

The average life expectancy prior to the industrial revolution was 40.
There was no “childhood”, people matured faster and education was limited to a few and very short in duration.
By 20, people lived the adult life of responsibility. Still managed to create.

JWatts April 13, 2013 at 12:18 am

The average life expectancy prior to the industrial revolution was 40.

That factored in a lot of child mortality. A 20 year old had better than a 40 year life expectancy. And a 39 year old had much better than a 1 year life expectancy.

Antares April 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm

True. It also factored in lack of hygiene as we know it, infection from simple cuts, war, starvation and the fact that the majority of the world’s population lived in poverty. Middle class did not exist. Based on historical records.

Thanatos Savehn April 13, 2013 at 1:40 am

Didn’t Alexander the Great answer this question?

Ed April 13, 2013 at 4:23 am

This sort of thread is one of the reasons I keep coming here.

There is one question I have about the scenario. Do the number of years in childhood and senescence decrease proportionately, or stay the same? Do people still reach puberty around the age of 15, finishing maturing physically a few years after that, and then become senile at the age of 30? Or do they hatch from eggs as young adults, and then spontaneously combust forty years later even if there is nothing otherwise wrong with them?

It seems there are two big changes to the scenario from what we have now. The first, and biggest, is just having a certain time for death. Again, I’m not sure how developed this is. Do people know their actual death day? Is it celebrated or marked like a birthday (what if people knew the day on the calendar they were going to die but not the year?).

The second is the number of years physically -ignoring culturally- in childhood, adolescence, young adulthood (peak fertility), middle age, old age, and senescence. Its not the total number of years that are cut but where the cuts happen.

That said, one thing that impressed me about how people behaved differently in the second half of the twentieth century as opposed to other eras was the approach to risk. Basically late twentieth century people in the developed world are much less likely than anyone else historically to take risks with their physical safety themselves or to allow other people to take risks, eg their risk tolerance is quite low. This probably relates to the attitude that if you play your cards right, you should make it past seventy as a matter of course, which was absent in earlier eras. There is even a difference between how people in the developed vs the less developed world approach this, which is most visible with driving styles.

Also, late twentieth century longevity had an effect on marriage, since marriage for life at the age of twenty now comes with a high likelihood of meaning marriage for almost sixty years. So people got married later, were more willing to forgo marriage, and to divorce. I think this also had something to do with the increased willingness to divorce and the increased insistance on monogamy as an essential part of marriage.

Ken D. April 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Ed makes a key point: shortened life spans and known date of death are two largely distinct ideas that are rather artificially being linked. This is all quite speculative, of course, but the speculations will be more helpful if those two things are separated. As some have noted, one obvious point, grounded in actual history and current sociology, is that with 40 year life spans, cultural adulthood would certainly need to arrive earlier.

David April 13, 2013 at 8:57 am

Um, we did this experiment. It was called “pre-industrial history.” Now, the exact date was uncertain, but median life expectancy was under forty. Surely, people knew this. Surely, people knew that 1/3 of women would die around the time of childbirth. Nations wee often ruled by young men, sometimes in their teens (or barely out of them.) Kings Richard I and III ascended to the throne at age 32 years. Charlemagne was king of the Franks in his 20s. The notion that young men were leaders who knew they were likely to die young contributed to the nearly perpetual warfare Europe experienced for 1000+ years has considerable face validity.

The advent of industrialization, better public hygiene (London’s sewer systems), and basic sterile technique (hand washing around the time of childbirth) has led to steadily increasing life expectancy, social wealth and welfare, and less conflict. This isn’t a thought experiment. It’s history.

Antares April 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm

LOL. See my comment above. This is why I believe it is crucial to keep the middle class, which is being eroded. Unless we want to head back into “pre-industrial” times.

Prakash April 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm

There might be great gender equality as one of the greatest differences between humans arises after 40 where men retain their fertility and women lose theirs.

Sandra April 13, 2013 at 5:49 pm

The Bible would have to be re-written, technological advances will decrease or become focused on how to live past age 40, more individuals will spend half their lives drug and alcohol dependent, most will know their children only as children or young adults at most for 27 years if the mother reproduces at age 13. No grandparent influence…this is a death notice for mankind…studies have demonstrated that the presence of the maternal grandmother increases the likelihood for infant survival…
How do you think this will work out for you?

hockthai April 14, 2013 at 8:57 am

If I died at forty, let me have a near death experience, visit heaven and hell, meet friends and family, then come back and find a purpose to live, touch peoples lives with a message from the other side.

Faheem Kajee April 14, 2013 at 10:00 am

It’s quite interesting to think of what changes are happening as the average life-span increases.

Mihai April 14, 2013 at 10:40 am

An imteresting view. Also, people would deal with a great cultural impact, they won’t have the time or the will to get past the so called traditions, habitual live styles and so on. Maybe people would have more tolerance from this point of view.

Jeremey Arnold April 15, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Actually reminds me of the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Half a Life” only instead of dying at 40, you either die before or are euthanized at age 60. It’s an interesting take on some cultural impacts, and particularly emphasizes the sociocultural / religious idea around “The Resolution” and how an entire sociocultural norm emerges that supports the continuation of the practice… It’s worth 45 minutes to watch on Netflix.

Don Packett April 16, 2013 at 9:24 am

For the most part, I think this is complete rubbish. If you knew when you were going to die, why would you go out and make the world a crappy place? It doesn’t make sense.

Bring it to business: If you have a deadline to meet, you work towards achieving everything that needs to be done. Correct?

So, if you have your own life-deadline, why wouldn’t we work towards achieving everything that needs to be done? Like inspiring young minds, setting your future family up for a good life (while teaching them to do the same for the next generation, and so on) and creating a legacy.

I think this post is extremely negative and a poor show of what humans inherently want to do: Be nice. Be awesome.

Sure, there will be the few who may not take up the positive challenge, but you have to believe that most would want to build something amazing.

Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist…

Don Packett April 16, 2013 at 9:29 am

Oh, and also:

I don’t think people would be more religious, I think they’d be less so. There’s no reason to follow a god when you know what your outcome will be. We’ll do what we need to do to make a difference, ourselves, and won’t need a higher power to help us out.

siyanda April 16, 2013 at 10:20 am

Let’s get back to the topic of education. Far from eradication I think education would lean more to specialization at an early age.

Kids would studying what “they’re meant to become” (maybe decided by parents or community as a whole or themselves) at age 5. Eg. Drs might be learning anatomy at age 6 and be doing their PHDs at 15 etc.

That’s what I suspect might happen. Education will no longer be 20years of “figuring out what I wanna be”. It’ll be straight training.

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