This has been a bad year to be a celebrity. From David Bowie to Carrie Fisher, with far too many to remember in between, we have lost a number of iconic figures and not just the aged ones. It is one thing to see Arnold Palmer or John Glenn pass on and quite another to see a contemporary or someone just a few years older than you die. Of course it is a merely an unfortunate coincidence that has seen us lose so many talented artists and performers, but it does remind us of our mortality and the fragility of life. No one enjoys that. As we age, we first notice the passing of those ancient relatives or perhaps someone younger, victimized by accident or disease. But, for most, it is not until our Grandparents begin to die that death starts to feel like a real thing and leaves a void in our lives. For those who have lost a parent or both parents, there is no longer any buffer between this world and whatever lies beyond it. We can no longer deny that the time will also come for us and there is nothing we can do about it. We make ourselves feel better by describing the death of our contemporaries as tragic because they were still “so young” and are now gone “too soon.” Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
It is curious though how much we have postponed death. Not many years ago, a person in their 80’s might have been seen as impossibly old and feeble but now there are many who continue to live a healthy and happy life. And, only a few generations ago, someone in their 60’s or 70’s would have been seen as being at the end of their lives. Only a few centuries past, living past 40 would have been seen as a pretty long life. And, with the developments in medicine and genetic engineering, it seems likely that average lifespan will continue to grow. Some scientists now talk about people being able to routinely live to 150 or more! But, in a world where one can repair their damaged DNA or grow a replacement organ, how long a life is too long a life? How old do we really want to be?
And, perhaps as importantly to society, how old do we want people to be? There is big difference between a society in which people continue to work and contribute to our economy and our culture well into a second century of life, and one in which people remain dependent on constant scientific and medical treatments in order to continue to hang on. If we can have the former, it has the potential to merge the vitality of an extended youth with the wisdom and experience of decades of living. If it is the latter, it will only serve to lead us more quickly into bankruptcy. While it may sound cruel, a vital society can only afford to care for a certain number of people who are not able to care for themselves. And, ideally, a large percentage of that treasure should probably be spent making sure that those at the beginning of life, children, are healthy, well-fed and educated.
All this is not to suggest that life extension is a bad thing but only that it is leads to us having to make some very difficult decisions, individually and collectively, that many of us are loathe to even think about, let alone discuss. Programs such as Social Security and Medicare, targeted to help older Americans were developed at a time when older meant 65, not 75 or 80. Still, those programs have represented a “third rail” of American politics and even suggesting that the age of eligibility should rise or that the programs should have a means test, has often been political suicide. Now imagine how those programs will have to change in a world where people routinely live past 100! And not just government but the entire economy will have to make dramatic adjustments as well.
No, I don’t have the answer. I doubt any one person does. But, as this year passes into the next and more of our friends and family get older and older, it is a discussion we cannot avoid having. I look forward to contributing to that conversation for as long as I can.
Here’s hoping that everyone is having a joyous holiday season and, as always, thanks for following along. Make sure to watch for the next posting as I’ll be full of optimism for the future. No…seriously. You won’t want to miss it!