Tenure on Earth

ANN EGERTON

December 10, 1992|By ANN EGERTON

There has recently been a rash of scientifically based article in news magazines predicting dramatically extended lifespans. Which really suggests extended stress, expense and worry.

I suppose I'm old fashioned, but my reaction to these predictions echoes a line from Rodgers and Hammerstein's ''Everything's Up To Date In Kansas City,'' the one that says ''we've gone about as far as we can go.''

A second reaction is a crisp ''Why?'' Why would any one want to live much beyond today's approximate average of three score and fifteen? Putting aside the unspeakable expense of staying alive much past 75 or even into your second century, putting aside the burden of having so many people on the planet, (11 billion souls by the year 2050, some say), one wonders how long one's joie de vivre could last -- decade after decade after decade -- before getting a little jaded, a bit burned out. How many deja vus can a person take before boredom sinks in?

The question is, how are people going to like and use this extended time on earth? Will it be a gift or a curse? Will there be levity in your longevity?

Longer lifespans suggest many careers, many marriages, (ergo a number of step-children) or even delaying parenthood well into middle age or later. How many spouses and jobs do you want to have, how many bosses do you want to please, how many mortgages and tuitions do you want to pay, how many teen-agers do you want to wait up for? How long do you want to worry about contraception? (Oddly enough, the articles that I've seen -- articles which forecast all sorts of exotic methods of extending or postponing fertility, say almost nothing about actual birth control; it's becoming the new taboo.)

By the way, how long do you want to pay taxes? How many medical-insurance forms do you want to plow through? How many political campaigns can you stand? (How many presidents who are younger than you can you trust?) How many times can you bear to go Christmas shopping?

My sense is that the articles about extended lifespans were written by very young people who are still indiscriminately enthusiastic and optimistic about everything, who haven't had much go wrong for them, who don't know what tired is.

The authors sound vaguely, probably unintentionally, elitist, and forget that most people will not gracefully amble from one stimulating, well paying career to another; most will be stuck in mind-numbing jobs such as, as Ross Perot would say, chicken plucking. How many decades do you want to do that, or haul garbage or sell plumbing supplies or process data on a computer? And when you finally retire, what kind of retirement could you realistically expect to have? How long would retirement be -- 40 years?

It sounds as if man's extended tenure on earth will be a long Sisyphean struggle, with fewer and fewer benefits. After all, it's not fair to stay too long at the fair.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

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