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: