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Longevity Lessons

28 Jul 2013
A long time ago I read an Isaac Asimov story portraying a future society with human life spans extended by several centuries. The effect on society was to slow social and scientific progress in equal proportion: Feeling no rush, people took their time.

Further adding to the problem was the fact that children could no longer look forward to the deaths of their parents, which can be a key event in freeing people to become themselves. Nothing turned over; nothing changed. Estates were not inherited; offices were not succeeded to. Civilization stagnated.

Although the average life expectancy is still twenty percent less than a century, we can already see some of the social effects that Asimov projected with such prescience. The problems caused are hardly devastating, but they are telling. And growing. In the case of the institution of marriage, much suffering occurs.

The problem occurs in areas that grant lifelong privileges or responsibilities. So often, survival into extreme seniority means that the duties of the senior in question go increasingly unfilled, while the capable juniors below them chafe and await their demise.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima at Coronation

Queen Emeritus Beatrix of the Netherlands

No one understands this today better than the Prince of Wales, age 64 and heir to the monarchy of the United Kingdom, who recently watched Prince Willem-Alexander of Holland, age 46, succeed to his own throne, after his mother’s abdication at age 75.

Charles of the House of Windsor, who is only a decade younger than Queen Beatrix, has no duties but to await his mother’s death, who has sworn not to step down. Even his obligation to not embarrass the family is minimal, which is a good thing for him, and a lesson his younger son has taken to heart.

Prince Charles and Consort Camilla

Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

Queen Elizabeth is 87; her mother lived to 102. Even though Elizabeth will be doddering and perhaps even demented, Charles could be 80 before he becomes King. Fortunately for the governance of the United Kingdom today, the monarchy has no real importance, or changes would be required. In today’s political environment, whether the monarch is Elizabeth, Charles, Williams, or even Baby George, the result will be the same: the paparazzi will pay more notice than the parliamentarians.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

America has its own problem with lifelong office in the Supreme Court. The Founding Fathers wrote this requirement into the Constitution in order to ensure the independence of the judiciary. By guaranteeing a justice a life-long position, the hope was that he would never feel to need to craft his decisions in order to secure his livelihood.

Since most justices are appointed in their early fifties, that allows terms that to approach and even exceed three decades. Right now four justices have served twenty years or longer, and one is approaching thirty years of service.

As in marriage, the rule of lifelong commitment was made in a time when “life long” was rarely more than a decade or so. In today’s world, however, that commitment can extend to four decades, at least in the case of one justice who took office at age 43. For a justice to serve that long, freezing his (or her) world view into law for more than a third of a century and longer, means that law can no longer keep up with our fast-changing society. Somehow this arrangement needs to change to address the changes in life spans.

Even worse is the lifelong commitment built into the institution of marriage. The marital contract is so freely flaunted that it would be laughable if not for the devastating impact on so many lives. Five thousand years ago when this institution emerged in the world’s six civilizations, life expectancies were about thirty years. Even at the turn of the last century life expectancies in the best nations were below fifty. So the idea of enduring a marriage gone awry was far more palatable then than today, with life expectances in the late seventies and often going far beyond.

Consider the many phases of life we go through, even in adulthood, if we live to our life expectancies in our late seventies. A couple that gets together in their early twenties has, within a decade, progressed to a much different life stage. By the time they have children approaching adulthood, their own lives, bodies, and emotions start going through substantial changes as the hormonal systems of men and women lose their power. By mid-life a couple together is often unrecognizable from that couple a quarter century earlier. Their hopes and dreams may well have evolved, at different paces and in different directions. And in seniority, the need for compatibility and intimacy takes on an entirely new meaning.

With all these changes over six decades of life and more, it is no surprise that married couples grow apart; when they do not we celebrate the exceptionalism. If you insist on viewing marriage in a purely religious context this fact can be difficult to comprehend or cope with, but otherwise the reality is evident: At some point in their lives, most people need to move on. This fact shows in divorce statistics. To never go through the life-wrenching changes of divorce, that is a blessing to those who enjoy it. But as life spans grow, the likelihood of lifelong marriages lessens.

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