Is a Long Life Really Worth It?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the question that reader John Harris has been asking himself lately. He’s not alone: In 1862, one of The Atlantic’s founders, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wondered the same thing about aging. Acknowledging that “the creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous,” Emerson set out to explain the upsides of senescence. A common theme is the sense of serenity that comes with age and experience:

Youth suffers not only from ungratified desires, but from powers untried, and from a picture in his mind of a career which has, as yet, no outward reality. He is tormented with the want of correspondence between things and thoughts. … Every faculty new to each man thus goads him and drives him out into doleful deserts, until it finds proper vent. … One by one, day after day, he learns to coin his wishes into facts. He has his calling, homestead, social connection, and personal power, and thus, at the end of fifty years, his soul is appeased by seeing some sort of correspondence between his wish and his possession. This makes the value of age, the satisfaction it slowly offers to every craving. He is serene who does not feel himself pinched and wronged, but whose condition, in particular and in general, allows the utterance of his mind.

By 1928, advances in medicine had made it more possible to take a long lifespan for granted. In an Atlantic article titled “The Secret of Longevity” (unavailable online), Cary T. Grayson noted that “probably at no other time in the history of the human race has so much attention been paid to the problem of prolonging the span of life.” He offered a word of warning:

Any programme which has for its object the prolongation of life must also have, accompanying this increased span of life, the ability of the individual to engage actively and with some degree of effectiveness in the affairs of life. Merely to live offers little to the individual if he has lost the ability to think, to grieve, or to hope. There is perhaps no more depressing  picture than that of the person who remains on the stage after his act is over.

On the other hand, as Cullen Murphy contended in our January 1993 issue, an eternity spent with no decrease in faculties wouldn’t necessarily be desirable either:

There are a lot of characters in literature who have been endowed with immortality and who do manage to keep their youth. Unfortunately, in many cases nobody else does. Spouses and friends grow old and die. Societies change utterly. The immortals, their only constant companion a pervading loneliness, go on and on. This is the pathetic core of legends like those of the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew. In Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a fine and haunting novel for children, the Tuck family has inadvertently achieved immortality by drinking the waters of a magic spring. As the years pass, they are burdened emotionally by an unbridgeable remoteness from a world they are in but not of.

Since antiquity, Murphy wrote, literature has had a fairly united stance on immortality: “Tamper with the rhythms of nature and something inevitably goes wrong.” After all, people die to make room for more people, and pushing lifespans beyond their ordinary limits risks straining resources as well as reshaping families.

Charles C. Mann examined some of those potential consequences in his May 2005 Atlantic piece “The Coming Death Shortage,” predicting a social order increasingly stratified between “the very old and very rich on top … a mass of the ordinary old … and the diminishingly influential young.” Presciently, a few years before the collapse of the real-estate bubble that wiped out millions of Americans’ retirement savings, Mann outlined the effects of an increased proportion of older people in the workforce:

When lifespans extend indefinitely, the effects are felt throughout the life cycle, but the biggest social impact may be on the young. According to Joshua Goldstein, a demographer at Princeton, adolescence will in the future evolve into a period of experimentation and education that will last from the teenage years into the mid-thirties. … In the past the transition from youth to adulthood usually followed an orderly sequence: education, entry into the labor force, marriage, and parenthood. For tomorrow’s thirtysomethings, suspended in what Goldstein calls “quasi-adulthood,” these steps may occur in any order.

In other words, Emerson’s period of “ungratified desires and powers untried” would be extended indefinitely. Talk about doleful deserts! On top of such Millennial malaise, Mann also predicted increased marital stress, declining birth rates, a depleted labor force, and a widespread economic slowdown as the world’s most powerful nations entered a “longevity crisis.”

But that’s just one vision. Another came from Gregg Easterbrook, who anticipated “a grayer, quieter, better future” in his October 2014 Atlantic article “What Happens When We All Live to 100?” His argument has some echoes of Emerson’s, but with modern science to back it up:

October 2014

Neurological studies of healthy aging people show that the parts of the brain associated with reward-seeking light up less as time goes on. Whether it’s hot new fashions or hot-fudge sundaes, older people on the whole don’t desire acquisitions as much as the young and middle-aged do. Denounced for generations by writers and clergy, wretched excess has repelled all assaults. Longer life spans may at last be the counterweight to materialism.

Deeper changes may be in store as well. People in their late teens to late 20s are far more likely to commit crimes than people of other ages; as society grays, the decline of crime should continue. Violence in all guises should continue downward, too. … Research by John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, suggests that as people age, they become less enthusiastic about war. Perhaps this is because older people tend to be wiser than the young—and couldn’t the world use more wisdom?

It’s a good point. Couldn’t we all use more wisdom, more experience, more opportunities to learn? Wouldn’t we make better use of our lives if our lives went on forever? Not so fast, Olga Khazan wrote last month:

A common fear about life in our brave, new undying world is that it will just be really boring, says S. Matthew Liao, director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University. Life, Liao explained, is like a party—it has a start and end time. … “But imagine there’s a party that doesn’t end,” he continued. “It would be bad, because you’d think, ‘I could go there tomorrow, or a month from now.’ There’s no urgency to go to the party anymore.”

The Epicureans of ancient Greece thought about it similarly, [psychologist Sheldon] Solomon said. They saw life as a feast: “If you were at a meal, you’d be satiated, then stuffed, then repulsed,” he said. “Part of what makes each of us uniquely valuable is the great story. We have a plot, and ultimately it concludes.”

Even so, some futurists believe immortality is within reach:

So, what do you think: Is there a limit to how long people should live? Is it selfish to want eternity for yourself, or would having even a few immortals around make the world better for everyone? Here’s one reader’s take:

This reminds me a bit of the cylons in the “new” Battlestar Galactica.
With the ability to reincarnate infinitely, and be effectively immortal, they were callous towards humans, and killed humans with impunity. It was only when their ability to reincarnate was ended and they became effectively mortal (and thus subject to basically the same rules of death as humans) that they were driven to behave in a moral way.

But another reader argues:

I for one think the world would be a better place if we collectively took a longer view, and what better way to do that than to give everyone a stake in it?

Send your thoughts to