How problematic is the Atlantic cover story about old age? Let me count the ways.

The cover story of the October 2014 Atlantic magazine, “The New Science of Old Age,” features a white-bearded skateboarder careening between two articles that encapsulate American ambivalence about longevity: here’s why our kids could significantly outlive us and how awful that would be. Below, my Letter to the Editor calling out the unacknowledged ageism that saturates both articles, followed by more examples.  

 

To the Editor: Would the Atlantic publish a cover story about changing gender roles without mentioning sexism? Or analyze race relations without foregrounding racism? (“Racist” appeared in the subtitle of “The Case for Reparations.”) Yet in nineteen pages devoted to how longevity could transform society, ageism goes unmentioned—not to mention unexamined. Both lead articles are riddled with examples. 

 

In Greg Easterbrook’s “What Living to 100 Will Mean”:

  • The idea that Supreme Court justices should have term limits because they live too long. Age and ideology are unrelated.
  • Framing corrupt campaign-finance laws as a “problem of aging leadership.” And who isn’t aging?
  • The stereotype that people prefer one form of entertainment to another based on how old they are. Plenty of older people like “loud and aggressive” sports like football!

       In Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75”

  • The statement that “our older years are not of high quality.” Study after study shows people to be happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. 
  • The presumption that circumscribed lives are not worth living. The story of Emanuel’s own father belies it. 
  • The zero-sum reasoning that “stretching out old age” comes at the expense of “saving more young people.” This “canes vs. cradles” argument has been debunked by countless gerontologists. 
  • The premise that age turns people into useless burdens. Far more resources, material and otherwise, have always flowed from older generations to younger ones.

The meaning of living to 100 will turn less on science than on society.  It’s not having a vagina that makes life harder for woman, it’s sexism. It’s racism, not having dark skin, that oppresses people of color. It’s not the passage of time that makes aging in America so much harder than it has to be—it’s ageism. It is high time to stop giving this form of discrimination a pass. 

 

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There’s more to take issue with in this Atlantic cover story, much more:

 

In Contributing Editor Greg Easterbook’s “What Living to 100 Will Mean”:

The assumption that ballooning health-care costs for olders would mean shorting other social programs. (What “live too long” really means is “cost too much.”) Resources are not inherently scarce; this imagined shortfall is the result of policy decisions in a society that disregards its oldest and youngest members. The assumption is not just biased, it’s inaccurate. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the share of US healthcare spending going towards nursing and retirement homes has declined since 2000 and been flat since 2006. The ten-year MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America concluded that once people reach 65, their added years don’t have a major impact on Medicare costs. The old old actually cost less to care for at the end of life than people in their 60s and 70s.  

 Flawed demography. The “Rise of the Centenarians” chart on p. 65 omits the fact that most of the growth in life expectancy in the 20th century was a function of lower child mortality, thanks largely to clean water and antibiotics. We’ve outsourced death from the young to the old, and we’ve eliminated most of the causes that are easy to remedy. As life expectancy rises, it becomes more and more difficult to increase lifespan further. Furthermore, the effect of the baby boom bulge will peak by midcentury.

 The standard alarmism about federal programs: Social Security bankrupted! Medicare exhausted! A large population over the age of 65 will severely strain federal programs, and the government’s future financial obligations, currently unfunded, are indeed staggering. Relatively small fixes can fix Social Security though, such as raising the cut-off point for taxation of earnings, which is based on average earnings. (Because high-end earnings have grown faster than average, today only about 83.5 percent of earning are taxed, as compared to 90 percent in 1983.) Nor is the longevity boom to blame for the mess American healthcare is in. The failure lies in the way the system is organized. Designed as an acute care program, Medicare needs to be overhauled to deliver care management to people with disabilities and chronic illness—an aging America, in other words. 

 The faint-hearted suggestion that in a longer-lived world Shakespeare’s seven ages, the late ones being “entirely negative,” “may demand revision.”  May? Easterbrook is crystal-clear about all the scary stuff that could happen. Average male lifespan in Elizabethan England was 47. Generously, this gives 61-year-old Easterbrook a choice between clownish “poltroon” or “second childishness.” Is this how he sees himself and his peers?

 

In bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75”:

I’m not going to bother with Emanuel’s absurd presumption that he knows how he’ll feel decades from now; the bull looks different, and I assume he was reaching for a sensational headline. Emanuel has clearly reflected on death and dying, as befits a bioethicist, and his questions about unnecessary medical tests and interventions down the line make sense. Narcissism and internalized ageism render the rest of the article offensive enough to border on grotesque.

Living “too long,” writes Emanuel, “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.” What hubris to imagine that we can control the ways in which we’ll be remembered! And what foolishness to conceive of age as a one-dimensional continuum, with younger people, coming off, well, just better. 

This makes a certain sense if you measure productivity they way Emanuel does: by writing symphonies or winning Nobel prizes or running cities, like his brother, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emamuel, or running Hollywood talent agencies like his brother Ari. These standards leave behind not just their father, a physician who no longer teaches or makes hospital rounds—yet, mystifyingly to his son, “said he was happy”—but almost everyone on the planet. It is regrettably American to value doing over being, an ethos that Ezekiel Emanuel epitomizers and that serves us poorly in late life. No wonder he views the prospect with such dread and contempt. 

 Emanuel’s case for dying at 75 rests on his view that disability renders life not worth living. An awful lot of people living with disabilities would vehemently disagree, and they ought to know.  Quality of life is of course subjective, as the bioethicist acknowledges, saying he would support the choice of people who want to live as long as possible. Phew; hold the eugenics! Emanuel may indeed keep the ability to scale Kilimanjaro as his benchmark. My guess is that like the vast majority of older Americans, he’ll find plenty of pleasures in life writ smaller—unless he’s still measuring his kingdom by the standards of his overachieving siblings.

4 thoughts on “How problematic is the Atlantic cover story about old age? Let me count the ways.

  1. Thank you for taking a hard critical look at the factual, logical, and ethical mess that the Atlantic made of a very worth subject.
    One of my biggest concerns with the living to 100 article was that they did not feature the voice of a single older person about what it is like to be old. This may have revealed a little about the ageism you mentioned as a glaring omission, but it might have also presented aging as something human, rather than something that exists in theory or as a biological lab experiment or an economic measure.
    Instead, they pull the disgusting tactic of using funny photos of older people (funny because they are pretending to be ‘young’!) so that people pick up the magazine, and then drop them from the story. As you say, would you present a cover story about women without including the voice of a single woman? Or about people of color when you only talk to white demographers and biologists instead of the people themselves (and on top of that put in some exploitative photos?). Really disappointed in the Atlantic. We need this kind of critique. Older people and anyone who cares about older people should be outraged.

  2. Thank you for addressing this article. I have just finished reading a book by James Hillman, “A Force of Character, And a Lasting Life”. If you haven’t already read it, may I suggest it to you? I have written a comment refuting Dr. Emanuel’s article on my own Facebook page. I commend you for your thoughtful approach to the subject.

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