Here We Go with That Age Thing Again.
'Elderly' Justice Breyer is hanging it up. So who's next? And why aren't they?
There’s a whole bunch of hoo-haw going on out there about the aged needing to have the good sense to stop pretending they can still do the job when they would be doing us all a favor if they just shuffled off into the twilight and found a nice hobby.
Every time an important person like Justice Ginsberg or Justice Breyer either dies or retires, the subject falls to which old coot is next? Joe Biden gets it all the time. ‘Senile’ isn’t a word I’d use to describe him—he’s a bit of a dynamo these days—but he’s 79 years old. Emphasis on old.
The lists of public figures in their 70s and 80s are carpeting the internet these days, and they’re not there to congratulate them. They’re there to shame them for keeping on when it’s clear they’re too old. Except, for most of them (not all of them), their age is incidental. They’re doing just fine. They’re doing their jobs.
James Fallows wrote an intriguing piece today, called ‘On Life Tenure and its Drawbacks’, where the subject is Justice Breyer, but the topic moves on to the realities of aging. (It’s worth the read, as is everything James Fallows ever gives us. Every essay from him is a gift.)
In it, he talks about an article I’d almost forgotten about, but one I wrote about at the time it came out:
Eight years ago Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel wrote a story in The Atlantic with the exaggerating-for-effect title, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” It was about the inexorable decline of skills, capacity, possibility, some forms of creativity as the years go on.
It was a fascinating and informative article, and I’m glad he wrote it. But, for me, having always been aware of the clock’s movement, its message was wrong. Every one of us knows where the story of a life leads, and ends. We’ve known this since we were children. It is what mortality means. What most of us don’t know is when, where, or how it ends. So, as each of our circumstances allow, we strain to make the most of the unknowable, and postpone the inevitable.
Fallows is right that the title was a grabber. I was 77 when it came out, and I was full into writing an opinion blog, so of course I had to respond. (You can read what I had to say eight years ago in the piece I’ve reprinted below.)
Am I an expert on ageing? You bet I am. Everyone who lives this long spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about it, talking about it, living it. We’re acutely aware of who’s winning the battle and who’s losing it. We’re constantly having to defend our place in the scheme of it by defending those who are under attack, simply because they’ve grown old.
So be warned: when someone is attacked for being old, I take it personally. And I often write about it. Because I still can.
Should I Die At 75? Oh, Wait. Too Late.
On September 17, the very day--I mean, the exact day I turned 77, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel's essay, "Why I hope to Die at 75" appeared in The Atlantic magazine. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Really? (We old people say, "really?" while you say, "seriously?". There's one difference right there.)
Emanuel is a bioethicist and breast oncologist who is for Obamacare and universal health care and against euthanasia for the aged. Nevertheless, he apparently believes that because most people over 75 are no longer as vibrant as most people under 75, and many of them have insurmountable health issues, there should be an arbitrary cut-off date after which any reasonable human being would do humanity a favor and go find themselves a nice iceberg somewhere and float off into the darkness. Singing.
I have admired Zeke Emanuel for. . . I don't know. . . a long time now. I can't remember. (Don't kill me!) I always thought that of all the Emanuels, he had his head on straightest. But it could be that on the very day I turned 77 my brain read Emanuel's piece, took notice that I was exactly two years past the cut-off date, and got confused about what it was supposed to do now. Whatever happened, I don't get this guy. Not this time.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
Ooooh. . . weeping here. So sweet! (Except for that part about "dying at 75 will not be a tragedy". Easy for him to say.)
And then he said:
. . .the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us. . . This age-creativity relationship is a statistical association, the product of averages; individuals vary from this trajectory. Indeed, everyone in a creative profession thinks they will be, like my collaborator, in the long tail of the curve. There are late bloomers. As my friends who enumerate them do, we hold on to them for hope. It is true, people can continue to be productive past 75—to write and publish, to draw, carve, and sculpt, to compose. But there is no getting around the data. By definition, few of us can be exceptions. Moreover, we need to ask how much of what “Old Thinkers,” as Harvey C. Lehman called them in his 1953 Age and Achievement, produce is novel rather than reiterative and repetitive of previous ideas. The age-creativity curve—especially the decline—endures across cultures and throughout history, suggesting some deep underlying biological determinism probably related to brain plasticity.
Hold on a minute. Old Thinkers. Processing. . .
This may take a while. . .
Okay, we'll move on now.
There are people who are still brilliant--or at least special--long past the time most of us would have given up and moved on. They're Emanuel's exceptions and the older these people get the more they become potential national treasures. It's because they've beaten the odds and are living proof that, even at such an advanced age, they still have much to contribute. [Ed note: See Betty White]
It's also true that younger admirers have put themselves in their place and feel better about their own chances of making waves for that long. But too often they stop celebrating that person's achievements and begin celebrating their longevity. Any mention of them from then on ends up being a eulogy. As if whatever they were is in the distant past and now they just are. This sort of thing doesn't help.
A cut-off date of, say, 75 when even Emanuel, the chooser of the cut-off date, admits that nobody ages in the same way during the same timeframe, is so dumb all I can figure is that he needed an attention-getter to make a few points about how terrible it will be when he's no longer at the top of his game.
Take it from me, Zeke. You'll get over it.
[Ed note: Zeke is now 64, the same age as my oldest daughter, and doing just fine.]
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