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The Future and the Church, Part II: Longer Human Lives

There has always been a need for those persons who could be called finishers. Their ranks are few, their opportunities many, their contributions great. …I pray humbly that each one of us may be a finisher in the race of life and thus qualify for that precious prize: eternal life with our Heavenly Father in the celestial kingdom. I testify that God lives, that this is his work, and ask that each may follow the example of his Son, a true finisher.

-President Monson

The history of human lifespan predictions is essentially the history of people theorizing that there’s some biological, natural ceiling for average lifespan, only to have that ceiling shattered. A derivative of a famous visualization in Science shows this history in one pithy image, with the sidebars being different hypothesized ceilings to average human life expectancy. 

However, like Moore’s Law predicting the increase of computing power, there’s little in the way of underlying theory driving this observation, and it too has to end at some point unless you think humans have it in them to eventually live to be a million years old. However, we still don’t have a clear picture for where that ceiling is, so for now extrapolating forward past trends that have been uncannily accurate in the past (specifically, we gain 2.5 more years of life for every decade since the 1840s) seem to be our best estimate for now. When we do this we find that “most children born in the last two decades in countries with high life expectancy will, if past progress continues, celebrate their 100th birthday.” It is also worth noting that historically increases in life expectancy are accompanied by decreases in age-associated health problems, so it’s not like the extra years will just be spent hooked up to breathing machines. 

The primary thought that immediately comes to mind when I think about this is that my children could easily be living and active in the year 2120, which is so far in the future that it makes anything non-offspring related that I’m working on now seem irrelevant in the long run.

But since this is a Church-related blog, what would a church look like in a world where most people in developed countries can plan on reaching their 100th birthday, with 110 being the new 100? I can think of a few implications, in no particular order:

  1. More senior missionaries. This is somewhat contingent on the retirement staying the same, which it probably won’t because of aging pressures in a world with fewer children. Still, I suspect the additional years of life will outpace increases in the retirement age, although I might be wrong. I don’t know when the idea of a “senior missionary” started, but it seems like a relatively new phenomenon. We couldn’t have senior missionaries until we had retirement, and this trend will probably continue. 
  2. Slower age-related changes in the Church as a whole. More and more the academic research suggests that cultural change happens “one funeral at a time”, since adults rarely change their minds in persistent, substantive ways once they reach a certain age. This, in addition to the selection effects I’ve talked about before, where less conservative people leave the Church, suggests that the Church will remain a “conservative” community in the sense that the norms and values of the older generations will be more represented than the values and norms of the younger generations. However, society as a whole will go through a similar dynamic as it ages so this isn’t saying that the Church will necessarily shift relative to society.
  3. Slower age-related changes to Church administration. The church is structurally geared towards conservatism as the presidency is determined by seniority. If older people tend to be more conservative, and the leadership of the church is determined by seniority, which is correlated to age, then the top leadership, which counts for a lot in a centralized organization like the Church, will tend to be more conservative. I like this dynamic, as it helps assure that the president is less susceptible to temporary social whims and fashions, but I know some disagree. Extended lifespans accentuate this dynamic. For example, if a younger apostle is called into the Quorum of the 12 at, say, Elder Bednar’s age of 52, that decision will potentially determine the leadership of the church a half century into the future. This shields the top governing bodies even more from the whims of the day because of the lag between the initial appointment and the presidency is so large. We may be seeing our first centenarian prophet soon, but given trends it is likely that a centenarian prophet will become common, with the possibility of a significant proportion of the Quorum of the 12 over 90. (Fun fact, Emeritus Presiding Patriarch Eldred G. Smith almost made it to supercentenarian status at 106.)
  4. Fewer missionary evacuations It’s a reasonably supported empirical finding that older countries are more politically stable. It’s hard to man the barricades when you have a bad back. Because of population aging (both from increases in lifespan as well as declines in fertility), the future will likely be a “pax geriatrica” (I didn’t coin the term but I can’t remember where I saw it). This stability will in turn potentially help the Church put down roots and grow in polities where it is allowed. 

Of course, how this interacts with all of the other future changes is speculative.



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