Recent suggestions that the average human lifespan might be increased to at least 130 years sent various authorities scurrying to consult actuarial experts, and show other signs of concern. As seems almost inevitable in these confusing times, the question wound up on the desk of the man most widely thought able to give us sound advice. The decision-makers must have heaved a collective sigh of relief on learning that Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our foremost towers of tutelage, had a window in his hectic schedule. He lost no time in dealing with the matter and reported as follows:
As I recently addressed the issue of our ageing population in another paper, this new commission was hardly a three-pipe problem – one fill of strong dark flake sufficed. Frankly, I fail to understand the excitement, especially as there is no question of a solution here, but rather one of appreciation. My first impression on receiving this brief was to recall an interview in a film I once saw, when an insurance salesman, endowed equally with enthusiasm and incompetence, was trying to sell a life policy to the notorious Jesse James. As I remember it, the bandit (or hero, according to your view) listened patiently, then said something like: “Let me get this straight. Are you saying you want me to bet on how long I’ll live, and you’re willing to take the rough end by guessing that I’ll be around for a long time?” If that isn’t succinct, I don’t know what is.
In my earlier report, I alluded briefly to the aspirations of older people, and I would like to expand on this theme. A recent radio phone-in filled me with gloom. Listeners were invited to offer their views on the revelation that an American team claimed to have found a method by which we could on average live nearly twice as long as we do now. If I remember rightly, there were twelve respondents, one of them a scientist, who had a detached interest. Of the others, only one – a woman of fifty-seven and in good health – had no wish to exceed the biblical span. The rest wanted to reach the age suggested in the US report, in each case expressing a desire to fulfil some humdrum personal ambition – tap-dancing, mandolin playing and so on. Of course, travel was in first place. Nobody wished to be involved in generally beneficial activities, such as producing clean renewable energy, a panacea for ills, improved housing, or any of the other things that are important to all of us.
I asked myself whether I would like to spend my later years in the company of people regaling me with accounts of their holidays in an ever-decreasing number of exotic locations, or telling me how they had learned to pole-vault at the age of eighty, or describing their elation at being among the first group of centenarians to cycle from Lands End to John o’ Groats. The answer was a resounding negative.
My pondering on the implications of living to 130 or more led me to think also of the time I spent in the commercial and industrial spheres. In those days, I frequently found myself surrounded by elderly men, all too often venal and obsessed with maintaining their positions of authority and privilege, notwithstanding that they were provided for in ways that should have detached them from such base considerations. It did not seem to occur to most of them that they were removed from material scrabbling in order that they might concentrate on the common good, rather than their further personal advancement. Imagine spending many decades clambering beyond your contemporaries, thrusting and kicking your way to the heights, then clinging like a limpet to a leading position in your hierarchy, lest someone – probably better than you – should be a threat. For goodness’ sake, you people at the top, take the fruits of your selfish toil and hand over to the young ones before they become too disillusioned to care. Remember that the interplay between change and continuity requires that the former must not wreck the latter and the latter not stifle the former. I realise that some readers may consider this paragraph something of an aside, but I might not get another chance to air these comments.
As indicated above, in this case I am not being paid for a solution but an appraisal. The task is an easy one. In my view there is a limit to the number and variety of experiences and impressions a human being can digest in one visit to this plane of existence, and if they have not been acquired in about seventy years, a further six decades are not likely to help much. My message to the obtuse is that they should leave us and try again in a later lifetime. Those who reject the advice are welcome to be condemned to plod on. Though still in demand, I have toiled long and hard and am profoundly relieved at the prospect of my earthly demise. Proceed if you wish. I shall watch your progress from another level.
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