My father was well beyond the danger point of a dive when a weight slipped from his jacket and spiralled downwards into the gloom.
We had arrived at the quayside to discover our Red Sea pleasure boat laden with US soldiers on leave from peacekeeping duties in the Gulf. The platoon’s NCO proved to be a seasoned diver. His charges were novices. A 19-year-old private from Arkansas, paired with my father, then 70, for the safety check and first dive of the day, failed to secure the weights that are essential in controlling a diver’s surfacing speed.
The mishap illustrated one of many rules that the sea subverts: on dry land a healthy teenager will invariably outperform a septuagenarian in any physical exercise. Underneath the waves, age is as fluid as water.
Confronted with a problem, the soldier lost control of his buoyancy, flailing like a fish in a net, while the older man, an emeritus professor of theatre history, calmly recalibrated their dive plan, communicating the change in the limited vocabulary of scuba sign language. Only once we were back on board was the natural order restored, as the senior grouched about the teen, who stretched out in the heat, blithely unaware of the animus he had attracted.
But the natural order is itself in flux. My father still dives in his 80s, still lectures, researches, writes books. People are living longer, sometimes much longer. Across the developed world the average lifetime has lengthened by 30 years since the beginning of the 20th century.
The fastest-growing segment of the world population is the very old, with the number of centenarians up from a few thousand in 1950 to 340,000 in 2010 and projected to reach nearly 6 million by 2050. You might have thought we’d use all that extra time to squeeze in a few additional stages of life – from the seven ages of man observed by Shakespeare, when life expectancy at birth was below 40, to maybe 10, 12, 15 stages now that a man born in Stratford-upon-Avon looks forward to an average span of 76.9 years.
Here’s the crazy, counterintuitive thing: the ages of man are actually eliding. Youth used to be our last hurrah before the onset of maturity and dotage, each milestone benchmarked against culturally determined expectations. Those expectations are now swirling and re-forming like glassfish in a current. What that means is that the premises on which our governments legislate are outdated. Our economies are based on data that no longer applies. There is a profound disconnect between how we imagine life and how it actually unfolds.
The meanings of age have become elusive; visual clues untrustworthy. Children dress like louche adults. Their parents slouch around in hoodies and trainers. Rising phalanxes of Dorian Grays rely on exercise, diet and cosmetic procedures to remain transcendentally youthful. Glowing teens and twentysomethings are propelled by some of those same procedures into a semblance of premature ageing, their sculpted, frozen faces timeless rather than fresh. Female celebrities don’t grow old; they vanish.
And there’s another reason our perceptions of age have come adrift: the disappearance of death in the developed world. If we’re lucky we may be in the middle of our lives before we see death up close and then it’s usually medicalised.
Polite societies don’t dwell on death; we’re expected to dab our eyes and get on with the business of living. In the absence of legitimised outlets, our orphan emotions attach to public bereavements, depositing flowers at the gates of Kensington Palace and composing Facebook tributes for total strangers. But there’s also a growing trend to believe we can control death. Assisted suicide is becoming just another lifestyle choice, at least in the abstract. Moreover, science has already added decades to our lives and must surely be on the verge of adding many more. Barely a day goes by without a media report of a breakthrough that seems to promise another lifestyle choice: to defer death altogether.
Things change. Amortals don’t, not at the core. These are the swelling ranks of people – and I am one – who live agelessly, doing and consuming many of the same things from teens into old age. For us, the concept of age-appropriate behaviour has little meaning. We don’t structure our lives around the inevitability of decline and death because we prefer to ignore it. Perpetual motion is a hallmark of the condition; we are prone to overwork, to adventuring. Nothing banishes those pesky intimations of mortality more effectively than illicit sex or emotional drama or some high-octane combination of the two.
By Catherine Mayer, Author of Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly