musings on music and life

March 1, 2016


Filed under: Philosophy — sankirnam @ 5:12 pm

The topic of longevity and increasing lifespans has been on my mind lately, and as usual, here is the best place to release my massive brain fart!

It’s no surprise that humans today are living longer than ever. This is thanks to things like sanitation, modern medicine, and even improved nutrition. Nutrition deserves a special mention; the varied and nutritionally complete diets we enjoy today are thanks almost entirely to the work of just two (or three) individuals: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and Norman Borlaug. It is mindboggling to think that thanks to these three people, we are able to support an additional 2-3 billion people on the planet! 

The lifespans of people in developed countries has increased significantly over the last century, but interestingly enough, economic and social policies seem to be lagging behind. This is similar to what women face in the workforce; unfortunately, the resolution of female employment, motherhood, and fertility issues is something that we need to straighten out immediately as a species. Just like that, an awareness of our increasing lifespans and how that affects macroeconomic issues like employment and education is worth considering.

Note: I am not an economist, just someone with an interest in the subject.

According to Google, the current retirement age in the US is 62:

Traditionally, the full benefit age was 65, and early retirement benefits were first available at age 62, with a permanent reduction to 80 percent of the full benefit amount. Currently, the full benefit age is 66 for people born in 1943-1954, and it will gradually rise to 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

I’m speculating that in a few years (or decades), the retirement age may be pushed even further, to 70 years or so. Of course, that may face heavy opposition, since older people are more likely to vote, and naturally want to protect their benefits. My idea is that as the retirement age gets pushed upward, we should also increase mandatory education for the younger population. In the US, education is mandatory until 12th grade. What would happen if we added 13th and 14th grades as well, delaying the entry to college by 1 or 2 years?

I don’t think this would be too difficult to implement (apart from the usual resistance to the status quo), and it would result in students being better prepared for college or whatever career paths they choose. We live in an age now where the collective knowledge of humanity is available to everyone at his or her fingertips; but of course, not everyone has the ability to parse the information efficiently. Additionally, we need to be well-versed in so many areas in order to succeed in the workforce or even contribute to society as an informed citizen. As Steven B. Sample (former president of USC) mentions: “[…] there are two essential languages each student in America must learn: first, English and, second, calculus“. I would like to add the following skills or knowledge (of course, I may be biased as a scientist):

  • computer literacy (which includes everything from familiarity with a GUI,  word processing, using a spreadsheet for basic data manipulation/analysis, searching for information on Google, to programming),
  • scientific literacy (including a basic understanding of mechanics, electricity, magnetism, chemistry, heat, work)
  • Mathematical knowledge up to integral calculus, as well as a sufficient background in statistics that allows awareness of the shortcomings of simple tests of statistical significance
  • Full functional literacy in English. I think this goes without saying, especially in an English-speaking country.
  • A knowledge of macroeconomics that includes not just basic concepts like supply, demand, marginal cost, and marginal benefit, but also allows one to understand issues like how free trade can affect domestic labor markets and currency exchanges.
  • A full understanding of how the political system in the US works, at the city, county, state, and national level.
  • A basic understanding of human biology and medicine. People should learn in school why vaccines work and why getting vaccinated is important, the fact that antibiotics are ineffective against viral diseases, as well as birth control, family planning, and other topics.
  • Biology and geology (sometimes called Earth Systems Science). Evolution needs to be taught in schools; it is not fiction, and is a phenomenon we can recreate in the lab with bacteria populations, for example. Evolution is what drives the recent surge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, after all! Also, high-school graduates should be aware of what “climate change” is and what contributes to it (mainly water vapor, CO2, and other greenhouse gases such as methane).
  • World history and a basic knowledge of geography and other cultures. You don’t necessarily have to know the exact latitude or longitude of Lesotho, but it would be nice if you knew it was a land-locked African country completely encircled by South Africa.

Whoa, I got a bit side-tracked here. But my point remains: we can (and probably should) extend mandatory education by another year or two; there is plenty of stuff that should be taught. Just like how inflation creeps slowly upward over time, extra years of mandatory education may need to be added on over the decades. As lifespans slowly increase, the proportion of our lives spent in school will remain constant.

Of course, the other concern which I mentioned earlier is reconciling education and employment with the ugly truth of female fertility. In humans, a woman’s fertility peaks in the early and mid-20s, after which it starts to decline slowly, with a more dramatic drop at around 35. This is the time when most people are trying to get their careers underway! Comedian Aziz Ansari illustrates this much better than I can:

From a historical perspective, women nowadays are indeed having kids much later than previous generations – but is it late enough? The fact that female fertility and financial stability seems to maximally coincide for most people between the ages of 25-30 means that you will have a new cohort of youngsters joining the workforce at intervals of 25-30 years. The turnover frequency of people in the workforce therefore also has to be in that range, in order to avoid social unrest due to the mass unemployment of young people. Therefore, as the retirement age rises, and people keep working until older and older ages, it also makes sense to keep children in school for longer, to match that rate of turnover.

Feel completely free to tell me I am crazy…


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