Who wants to live forever?

The “silver economy” creates a need to make our lives healthier and more active and this can happen through market innovations and technological progress

09:00 | 2 септември 2022
снимка: Bloomberg LP
снимка: Bloomberg LP

by Preslav Raykov

The legendary hit “Who wants to live forever” by Queen is written by the guitarist Brian May in the cars of his manager with which he was driving home after he just has watched the completed movie “Highlander”. The phrase “Who wants to live forever” occurred to him while he watched a love scene where the main character Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) watches how his mortal wife Heather (Beatie Edney) gets old and dies in his hands while he, the immortal, stays forever young. Brian May, except a musician, song writer and producer is also a graduate doctor in astrophysics and probably his scientific insights have inspired him back in 1986 to predict a trend which has materialized and gained a serious momentum in the last years.

The healthy aging or fighting for maximum extension of the functional human life is one of the current scientific trends. The silver economy is focusing more and more people's desire to have active, healthy lives thanks to technological progress and market innovation. The global longevity leads to a serious social transformation and causes new economical problems, and finding solutions for the new demographic realities challenges the most innovative companies and opens new markets. Whilst some may consider these social changes as a stern warning for the world economy, other treat this trend as a unique market opportunity. And they actively take advantage of it.

The silver economy – problem or an opportunity?

“The silver economy” includes all economical activities, products and services that please the needs of people over 50 years old. The concept originates from the so-called silver market in Japan, born in the 1970s, when the Land of the Rising Sun registered over 65 years of age in the world.


The nature of the silver economy is identified as a problem in many economic models. Increased life expectancy on a global scale, combined with declining birth rates, has led many economists to predict an alarming impact of an aging population on the stability of the global economy. We increasingly hear predictions of a "demographic time bomb" and reasoned fears that future generations will not be able to meet the increased pension and health care obligations of the growing number of retirees. An additional pressure is exerted by the growing demographic imbalance, as a result of which there are fewer and fewer workers of working age for each pensioner. This is not only due to longer life expectancy, but also to the developing long-term trend in most Western countries for lower birth rates. Normally, the fertility rate needed to replace the existing population is 2.1 children per woman, but according to recent data, the average level for the 35 countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is 1.7. Many countries, including Germany, Japan and Spain, are at 1.5 or even lower. This means that the ratio of workers to dependents – those who make zero economic contribution – has declined substantially, and will continue to decline over the next decade.

Because of the combination of these factors, the state pension debts rapidly have increased in the last 20 years. At the same time, our ability to finance them sustainably is under pressure. As a result, governments have little choice but to raise the state pension age. And this in turn has an additional effect on many private pensions, which usually use the state pension age as a benchmark.

All of these demographic predictions are very likely to come true, and economic systems currently do not yet have a solution to these challenges. Demographic data indicate that population aging is likely to accelerate over the next 50 years, and this will be particularly pronounced, both in developed countries and in many developing economies that we thought were immune to these processes. Statistics from the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that by 2022 the average life expectancy will be 72.5 years, which is 20 years more than in 1960, and the total number of the population over 60 will be 962 million – twice as many as in 1980, and by 2050 it will double again to nearly 2.1 billion.

Why is healthy aging necessary? The elderly are consumers with specific needs, for whose satisfaction businesses face new challenges. By dealing with them, companies can open new markets for their products and services, while also creating social value for society - as well as technological progress in a number of fields.

Currently, a number of longevity-minded companies are developing important innovations in a number of sectors. The purchasing power of people over 60 is increasing, and it is estimated that it will continue to increase by an average of 5% per year in much of the developed world. In the US over the next 20 years, people over 60 are expected to have nearly 70% of the total disposable income in the economy, and currently, most of the purchasing power in Europe is also concentrated in the population over 50 years of age. Forecasts predict that a number of segments will undergo significant changes, driven mainly by the purchasing power of aging consumers and their needs. Estimates put the global value of this new market – called the silver economy – at $17 trillion. Until 2025.

According to evaluation data of Oxford Economics (leader in the field of the global economical prognosis and econometric analysis) and to Technopolis Group (one of the leading European consultant companies in the field of science, technologies and innovation policy), the European silver economy is evaluated at 4,2 trillion euros and generates over 29% of the European GDP, as well as 35% of the total employment. If we compare only the European silver economy to the other global economies, it will be positioned on the third place in the world, trailing only the U.S. and China. According the demographic and market prognosis, the silver economy in Europe will grow annually with 5,5% and will reach a value of 6,3 trillion euros in 2025 as the population over 50 years old will reach 43% of the total population of the continent. The silver economy date are similar to USA as well. Currently the market in this segment is estimated to 7,5 trillion dollars and is expected to grow with an annual pace of over 5%.

The silver avalanche transfers to Asia, too. While it took the UK, USA and France 45, 60 and 115 years to transfer from a trend from an aging society trend to a fundamentally aging society, then in Singapore and China this trend will be much faster, and in the next 25 years the elderly over 50 will represent 32% of the entire Asia-Pacific population. This mass of older people is expected to form 52% of the total consumer spending in the Asia Pacific region, which will be an outstanding driver of the industries that will meet this spending.

The increasing number of elder people, together with the decreasing birth rate mean that until the middle of this century there will be more people over 60 years than under 15. Aging population is one of the most important factors for predicting the future economic activity and is a powerful force not only socially but also economically.

Healthy aging

Despite the clear predictability of of population ageing, its accelerating pace, as well as gaps in healthy longevity, the world appears unprepared for the new challenges. The pandemic has highlighted many wrong decisions not only in what we do, but also in how we think about aging and the problems of older people. Modern healthcare systems are not prepared to fully respond to the needs of the elderly. They mainly invest in people in the first half of life than in those in the second half, despite the higher prevalence of disease and the need for care. And if it's cynical to argue that people should live less, it's perfectly fine to mention that the solution would be for people to stay healthier for longer, thereby contributing to the development of economies.

It’s necessary to make people’s lives healthier and more active and this cannot happen through market innovation and technological progress. As global longevity leads to mass social transformation and number of economical problems, finding solutions for the new demographic realities challenges the most innovative brains around the world. A number of breakthroughs were made during the last 10 years in fields that can significantly change the way we age, as well as increase our working ability over the years.

Deep Mind and Alpha Fold 2

AlphaFold 2 is an innovative system, based on an artificial intelligence and deep machine learning that through the power of calculations predicts and models with high accuracy the three-dimensional structure of a huge number of proteins by analyzing their amino acid sequence data. The revolutionary program regularly achieves accuracy competitive with that of experiments, which are, however, extremely slow and require much more resources to run.

In recent years, DeepMind Technologies, which is a division and associate company of Alphabet (Google), and the European Bioinformatics Institute have actively partnered to create the AlphaFold 2 database. Currently, the platform is with an open code and can be used freely by the scientific community which promises a significant progress in different areas of the medicine, biotechnology and genetics that can essentially change our understanding of aging. The last version of the database contains over 200 million records providing extensive coverage of Uni Prot (the standard repository of protein sequences and annotations). The Alpha Fold 2 platform promises to change entirely a big part of the scientific approaches in unraveling human genes, diseases and their potential treatment. The platform made a great leap in solving one of biology's greatest challenges – determining the three-dimensional shape of a protein from its amino acid sequence. Until now, this has been done through different researches that require specialized labs, as well as many resources, including time.

AlphaFold 2 bested about 100 other teams in a two-year Deep Mind protein structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction. The previous version of the system – Alpha Fold, was also the undisputed winner in 2018, but Alpha Fold 2 surpasses all expectations and approaches record results exceeding everyone's expectations.

The ability to accurately predict protein structures according to their amino acid sequence will be of enormous benefit to the life sciences and medicine. This will greatly accelerate our efforts to understand the building blocks of cells, as well as enable the faster development of specialized drugs for various diseases. Last but not least, it will facilitate the study and treatment of the so-called “underestimated diseases” from which the world’s population everywhere suffers and they incur serious economical losses.

Robotic caregivers, nanorobots and cryonics. The day is not far off when robots will become a routine part of our elderly loved ones' daily lives. A number of companies are successfully implementing robotic models to provide people with independence as they age. But will robots be able to solve the problems of our aging society? Most of the current research shows that they can. Today, robots can take out the trash, help you walk, and do your shopping. They can even joke and recognize our emotions, even learn new things from us. While a fully functioning robot caregiver may still seem like a distant dream to us, technology developers and doctors alike are predicting that robots may soon replace caregivers entirely.

Everything began in Japan, where extending the longer life expectancy and declining birth rates have caused an alarming decline in the labor force, as well as a growing demand for caregivers. To address labor and care gaps, the Japanese have turned to one of the things they do best—technology. To this day, Japanese companies are leaders in the development of humanoid robots, but in the last decade Europe has also been making progress in this direction. French Aldebaran Robotics is developing one of the main contenders in the humanoid robot class – Romeo. It is the successor to the highly successful NEO-robot, which has achieved impressive results since its creation.

Robotics has much wider prospects for development than the creation of full-scale substitutes for caregivers. Robotic technologies are also a major part of a number of medical procedures that cannot be performed with simple human intervention. Today, the medical robots are well known with their role in the surgery, especially by using robots, computers and software for the exact manipulation of surgical instruments through one or more small incisions for various surgical procedures.

Many micro-robotic and nano-robotic technologies are also being developed to treat various diseases, as well as to diagnose a number of conditions and send timely information for disease prevention. Much of the research currently being done in animal organisms is that of nanorobots, which promise to deliver targeted chemotherapy to only parts of the body affected by cancer cells, without causing the side effects inherent in standard chemotherapy methods. One of the companies in this field is Nanovery, established in London in 2018, is currently developing solutions for early diagnosing of cancer diseases. A team of scientists is based in New Castle and works together with other teams and companies in one of the biggest clusters in the medicine and biotechnology field. The company states that their methods are much faster and more accurate than traditional methods, and in conjunction with other research, they provide almost 100% accuracy of results.

Cryonics is also an area that attracts more affluent clients and those who believe that medicine will advance significantly in the coming years. Number of companies suggest the freezing of people pending better times and the possibility of bringing them back to a full life. Alcor is the world's leading cryonics company, founded in 1972 in California. The company offers its customers deep freezing and long-term storage services. Even one of its creators – Fred Chamberlain – is currently frozen in a capsule awaiting better times for medicine. Alcor currently has 193 frozen customers in its cryo-chambers, and another 1,300 wealthy dreamers of immortal life are enrolled in the company's program.

The social side of longevity

Throughout the ages, the desire for immortality has accompanied much of human existence, but nowadays, this need is increasingly linked to the maintenance of an economic system that is languishing under the pressure of an aging population. And although today in developed countries more and more people live long after the age of 60, longevity does not necessarily mean good health, prosperity and ability to work. And this appears to be a problem for the economic systems. Beyond the orbit of immortality dreamers, the world must undoubtedly change its perceptions of the elderly, as well as invest heavily in innovative health care, including through technological and medical advances in the field of programmed life extension. We can say that today simply prolonging life is not a sufficient condition for extracting the positives of longevity. It needs to be linked to a maximally functional and fulfilling life so that the society can maximally to extract the positives from the growing share of an aging population.

We are used to perceive elder people as left behind by the technological progress of the world, as a symbol to past eras or just a weight on the social systems. Perhaps this prevents us from adopting their values and experience, which have proven themselves over time and could be blamed for the economic development of the world. The longer life is incredibly valuable resource if people have the opportunity to spend their second and third youth years in good health. Conversely, if these added years are dominated by decreasing physical and mental capacity, the consequences for the elderly and for society as a whole are much worse – they become a burden on the system.

In a world that in recent years has accelerated and targeted the sustainable development of economic systems as a top priority, it can learn a lot from such a model for healthy aging.
Maybe the color of the future economy is not green, but gray?

The Silver Economy is focusing more and more people's desire to lead active, healthy lives thanks to technological progress and market innovation.