Academic Sarah Harper says the days of a partner for life are over. But marriage isn't the only thing that will need to change as we (hopefully) enjoy our longer livesby Julian Baggini / June 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
A generation or so ago, many wished for a job for life, a spouse for life, and were happy with a home for life, a bank for life, even furniture for life. With average life expectancy now topping 81, however, all these expectations have been challenged.
Most gave up on a job for life long ago and when Sarah Harper, an Oxford Professor of Gerontology, said this week that the days of a partner for life were over, she was only repeating what many happily separated people have said before.
Familiar though such ideas are, we still haven’t entirely got to grips with how longer average lifespan is shaking up much of what we take for granted. In family life, for example, it is not just spouses who are having to rethink the repercussions of longevity. Until recently, there was a natural flow of life stages, from child, to parent, to grandparent, with each having its own responsibilities and benefits. This model was not designed for 70-year-old grandparents with parents of their own, or for fifty-something parents with legally adult children who are still in a kind of extended adolescence.
Let’s take those young wastrels first. Why are we still so obsessed with front-loading education? “Lifelong learning” has been a buzzphrase for decades now, but we still don’t get it. Education is too often wasted on the young. Let them experiment with other things post-18 and they can go to tertiary education a bit later if they want to. Much of the money we currently spend on them should go to the quaternary or even quinary education of older people often more eager and willing to learn, and more in need of doing so.
One advantage of this is that it might get kidults out of their long-suffering parents’ hair. Family life is romantically celebrated but it is also often fraught and tense. Love, loathing and toleration are often intimately connected. If family members are going to be able to be there for each other when it really counts, many are going to need time out from the intensity of these relations. Expect the rise of prodigal parents and the idea of the family sabbatical.
Assumptions around inheritance will also need to go. By the time both of most people’s parents die, the moment when a windfall bequest is most useful will be past. Not that we can expect to leave much behind. Working life will not be about accumulating wealth to hand down but to build up savings to take care of ourselves as we grown frailer. When even the Tories, the great defenders of inheritance, acknowledge this reality in their unfairly-derided “dementia tax”, you know the old world of the old has gone.
A new arc of life
And when we do get very old, what can we expect? Until recently, it has always made sense to try to keep alive for as long as possible, since the chances of that being too long were slim to zero. Now, however, medicine is very good at keeping our hearts pumping even when the body and mind it is fuelling is kaput. Slowly we are realising that we often do ourselves no favours by prolonging life, something that surgeon Atul Gawande has eloquently argued in his brilliant Being Mortal. Choosing how and when to die is going to become normal for the first time in human history.
Indeed, the whole default narrative of the arc of life has to change. There is a tendency to see life as a narrative of progress and fulfilment. But evidence suggests that although life satisfaction tends to rise in our forties, it goes into steep decline from our seventies. We need to be more prepared for this, accepting that life’s peaks will, at some point, almost certainly be behind us.
Savour the day
This means rethinking the most widely accepted principle for living: Carpe diem. This meant something very different when life was usually short and always vulnerable. There was no point thinking too much about a future that could so easily be taken from you. Now, life is still incredibly fragile but the odds of it being long are much higher. With the odds changed, seizing the day in ways that risk that future becomes a worse bet.
At the same time, long life can easily feel less like a gift and more like an entitlement. But the fact that the gap between the unlucky taken young and the majority who live longer is so large is even more reason to feel grateful if you find yourself among the older living. Seizing the day should be more a matter of stopping and savouring, not rushing to cram everything in before it’s too late.
Finally, the overhaul of criminal justice that is long overdue should get new impetus. Second chances become even more important when the cost of blowing your first has a longer expiration date. Longer life means more chances to learn and the current system is very poor at rehabilitation, meaning someone imprisoned in youth or middle age is in effect condemned to be marginalised for decades.
Crime hard-liners were always fond of the simplistic slogan “Life means life”. What we’re now learning is that when the meaning of “life” changes, the meaning of life changes, too.