Kenneth Boulding on Possible Consequences of Increased Life Expectancy


Scientific advances over recent years have had a marked effect in lowering mortality at very old ages in the developed countries, opening the prospect of routine achievement of significantly extended life spans. Some immediate responses to these trends, such as a rethinking of the actuarial assumptions underlying social security system finances, have already been required. But in the longer run many other and more fundamental accommodations would also be called for. In the paper reproduced below, from 1965, Kenneth Boulding points to some of these by means of a casual thought experiment in which longevity is set at 200 years. A striking misfit emerges between the new age distribution of the population, assumed stationary, and the age-specific role structure that the society had evolved, forcing adjustments in the latter. Age patterns of education and working life, life-cycle savings and consumption behavior, and intergenerational economic relations would be strongly affected. While the extreme longevity assumption (although modest compared to the Struldbrugs of Gulliver's Travels) underlines the lightheartedness of the exercise, the issues are real ones. The paper, entitled “The menace of Methuselah: Possible consequences of increased life expectancy,” was originally an address to the Washington Academy of Sciences in March 1965 and published in October of the same year in the Academy's Journal (Vol. 55, no. 7, pp. 171-179). It is reproduced here by permission of the Academy. Some minor arithmetical corrections to the savings calculations have been made.

Kenneth E. Boulding (1910–93) was a distinguished economist and social scientist. Born in England, he was educated at Oxford and the University of Chicago, and subsequently taught at a series of North American universities, the longest periods at the University of Michigan and University of Colorado. He was president of the American Economic Association, as well as of a number of other learned societies, but increasingly came to play a maverick role in his profession. His prolific writings–some 40 books and hundreds of articles–spanned a wide range of subjects: Keynesian theory, the grants economy, evolutionary economics, and beyond economics to general systems theory, resources and ecology, environmental quality, social justice, and (a life-long concern) peace and disarmament. Demographers often know of Boulding through his much-reprinted article “Toward a general theory of growth” (Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 19, no. 3, 1953). Another of his papers appeared in PDR 14 (Suppl.), 1988. Six volumes of his Collected Papers were published by Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder, CO, over 1971–85.