Living like tomorrow never ends

The quest for amortality, growing older but never growing up, excises the natural rhythms of ageing.

Summer’s on the way and with it a smorgasbord of live music to draw us out of our seasonal hibernation. A quick scan of the eclectic list of acts on their way down under is oddly revealing. Sandwiched between the contemporary Arctic Monkeys, Kings of Leon and the Foo Fighters are, wait for it, Steely Dan, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Meatloaf, and … give me strength, Hall and Oats.

All these 1970s rockers riding a wave of nostalgia and re-hab are but one example of a growing segment of the population that writer Catherine Mayer has labelled the “amortals”.

The amortal is immediately recognisable. It’s the 70-year-old you saw at the pool this morning with better abs, lats and pecs than you ever had. He swam three kilometres more than you, and the last you saw of him he was riding home, via a cooking class, to complete that book he never got around to writing.

The term Mayer coined is now widely used. One writer describes amortality as the mass condition where people don’t act their age and don’t acknowledge death. The New York Times regards the phenomenon as a “state of hopeful agelessness wherein one acts the same from adolescence to the grave”. Think Madonna, Richard Branson, Mick Jagger, Hugh Hefner and our very own amortal, Warnie.

Amortality is related to the fact that people are living longer – by 2050 more than a fifth of humanity will be 60 or older. But it’s more than this, as Mayer explains in her book, Amortality: the pleasures and perils of living agelessly. The defining characteristic of amortality, she says, is to live in the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from late teens right up until death.

It’s a blending together of the different ages and stages of life. “It’s your 49-year-old wife, lean and fit in Prada and Topshop, swapping clothes and downloads with her best friend, your 18-year-old daughter. It’s groovy old men, not grumpy ones. It’s nine-year-olds doing what 1970s teenagers did,” writes British commentator Peter York.

Whereas once we experienced clear cultural markers and expectations provided by parents, teachers, church and state, these no longer hold sway. Accompanying this shift has been a loss of the rhythm of life, and the transition towards maturity and age that was once considered fitting and appropriate. Don’t get me wrong. Much of what is ascribed to amortality is positive. We are experiencing better health and finding ways of keeping active and engaged well into our 70s and 80s. Taking hold of life at any stage rather than slipping from it is a good thing.

A great story out of Japan this year captures this spirit in its best light. Two hundred pensioners, “The Skilled Veteran Corps” of engineers and other professionals, recently volunteered to help tackle the crisis at the damaged Fukushima Nuclear Plant in place of current workers. They dusted off the overalls, knowing they had something to contribute, and that they could stand in the place of a younger person susceptible to the radiation.

Amortality may even prop up the economy with more use of gyms, drug companies and health spas, and the positive thinking that goes with it no doubt has it’s place and can add to the quality, if not length of life.

But the amortality story has a darker side as well. Mayer describes “awful manifestations” – a grasping desperation to hold on to youth, and cosmetic enhancements that leave us looking ridiculous.

As it frequently does, America is leading the way in this. Australian statistics are notoriously hard to come by, but according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons report for last year; $10.1 billion were spent on 13.1 million cosmetic procedures – up 5 per cent on the previous year. Of these, 48 per cent were for people aged 40-54 – that group accounting for almost half of buttock lifts, cheek implants, liposuction and tummy tucks. Breast augmentation continues to be the most popular cosmetic procedure. Figures out of the UK reveal similar trends. Clearly, when things are starting to droop, the surgeons get to work sculpting. Nine out of 10 patients of all cosmetic procedures are women.

What about the blokes? Given the amount of steroids being smuggled into the country through airports and the postal system – doubling in the past five years, according to Australian Customs – the signs are that men are willing to pay a high price for size and the chiselled look. The dangers of such behaviour are well known, but somehow the risks are deemed worth it. And while admittedly my own calves could do with some help, all of this reeks of desperation, superficiality and a culture that has lost its moorings.

Extreme examples of amortality involve a narcissistic refusal to grow up. Sociologist Michael Kimmel’s book Guyland: the perilous world where boys become men tells of a generation of young men who are obsessed with never wanting to grow up and who delay adulthood indefinitely.

Kimmel says that for those in ‘‘Guyland’’ the traditional markers of manhood – leaving home, getting an education, finding a partner, starting work and becoming a father – have been pushed out to an endless frat party of male bonding rituals and avoidance of commitment to work, relationships and life. This demographic craves video games, sports and depersonalised sexual relationships.

Mayer believes amortality is at least partly a function of a move away from religion as the story that provides a framework for our lives, along with an abandonment of the sense that this world is not all there is. As more of us have embraced a materialistic, closed universe, we have had to face what Paul Tillich calls the “threat of non-being”.

The great irony of a society that worships youth and seeks to extend it beyond any reasonable measure is that death is the great shadow that hangs over all our frantic attempts to avoid decline. We might avoid talking about it, but we’ve become a death-haunted culture.

This is seen no more clearly than in the bizarre practice of cryonics, the low-temperature preservation of human beings in the hope of future resuscitation. Like cosmetic surgery, cryonics is the preserve of the rich, seeking to cheat death and to maximise or extend life.

The cryonics guru Aubrey de Grey sees it as unnecessarily fatalistic to accept that we’re all going to get old and sick and die painful deaths. “There are a 100,000 people dying each day from age-related diseases,” he says. “We can stop this carnage. It’s simply a matter of deciding that’s what we should be doing.’’

No one want to die a lingering death but de Grey’s solution is typical of a modernist approach – regard everything as a technical problem in order to solve it. This includes, birth, life, ageing and even death. Our society has completed a cultural shift that moved us away from thinking of ageing as a spiritual journey to considering it mostly as a scientific problem – viewed only as an obstacle to modernity’s dream of unlimited individual health and wealth.

de Grey’s solution is typical of a modernist approach – regard everything as a technical problem in order to solve it

Carol Bailey Stoneking, professor of religion at High Point University, North Carolina, believes the age of 40 often marks the beginning of exhaustive if delusional attempts to seem younger, and remain necessary.

“These [efforts] circumvent the looming possibility of displacement,” she says. “Unfortunately, modernity, which prizes self-mastery, efficiency and technical control, provides precious little nourishment for the seeds of such wisdom. In a society that leads us to believe that we are the exclusive authors of our own stories, of our own endings, the fragility of a ‘good old age’ is indeed its susceptibility to luck.”

While some cultures revere elders, ours idealises youth. Consequently modern life has struggled to give due deference to older people. Even campaigners seeking to overcome ageism have merely replaced one stereotype with another. Instead of the senile, crochety, impotent and doddery old folk, we are presented with images of grey-haired, fit, sexually active bungy jumpers and triathletes. In other words, they’re pseudo young people. Somehow in this picture the natural ups and downs of growing old have been excised.

The fear of death remains an imposing presence and problem.

The 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that a true understanding of our place in the world must include a sadness and dejection about our own frailty, and the suffering that’s part of the human condition and our inability to change either fundamentally.

For Aquinas, the problem was not how to prevent sadness, which is appropriate, but finding a means of avoiding depression, despair or apathy. Of course his answer involved situating this human dilemma within a theistic worldview. Aquinas would agree that what we need is not a superficial optimism when it comes to ageing, but real hope that is grounded in something substantial.

The philosopher Ernst Bloch believed the only way the modern person who has rejected belief in God lives in the face of death is by subconsciously borrowing the belief in immortality that her forebears held, even when the basis for that belief has slipped away.

If Bloch is right, it’s through subliminally appropriating these remnants of belief in immortality and the divine that we maintain a sense of self-identity and ward off despair, managing to live as if the party will never end. “This quite shallow courage feasts on a borrowed credit card. It lives from earlier hopes and the support that they once had provided,” says Bloch.

French existentialist Jean Paul Satre believed that hours or years make no difference ‘‘once you have lost eternity’’. However we might attempt to deal with that dilemma, it’s very clear that in the West at least, we have opted for distraction as our overriding demand, and hence entertainment has become the dominant mode in everything from education to government, to relationships, to advertising and even church. We’re ‘‘amusing ourselves to death’’, wrote American social critic Neil Postman, and that was in the mid-’80s. One can only imagine what he would make of the iPad age.

Much of modern life involves finding ways to keep our minds off the realities of our transient existence and inability to make sense of it all. This may well be what lies at the heart of amortality.

Bob Dylan sang that “when all you held sacred falls down and does not mend, just remember that death is not the end”. For those who still believe that, it can make all the difference when it comes to embracing life, but also facing our inevitable end.

Simon Smart is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared as ‘The Essay’ in the News Review section of The Sydney Morning Herald on October 15, 2011.