Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly
by Catherine Mayer
Review by Rachel Hills
Getting older no longer looks the way it used to. Once upon a time, reaching your sixties meant saying goodbye to work, settling down in a wool knit cardigan and snuggling up with your grandkids. Today, it might equally mean running a marathon, starting your own business, or going on a full-scale bender worthy of a 21st birthday party.
Elongating life spans mean that governments around the globe are pushing back their respective retirement cut offs to cope with graying populations. People are even looking younger, due to a combination of cosmetic surgery, diet and exercise, and an ever-expanding impetus not to “let yourself go” – however advanced in years you may be.
We are in the midst, argues Catherine Mayer, author of Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly, of a full scale realignment of the way we think about ageing. “Youth used to be our last hurrah before the onset of maturity and eventual dotage,” she writes, “each milestone … benchmarked against a series of culturally determined expectations.” Now, Mayer argues, the links between a person’s chronological age and the way they look, feel and behave are eroding.
But amortality isn’t just about superficial vanities or a childish avoidance of responsibility. It’s about the rejection of the idea that the age you are determines who and how you should “be”: that twentysomethings are too young to run companies and fortysomethings too young to run countries; that your thirties are for having babies and your seventies for reminiscing.
Mayer is a skilled writer, weaving together complex science and sociology in a manner that can make Amortality either an easy, jaunty read or provocative social analysis, depending on how deeply you choose to follow her threads.
We’ve read about many of the surface trends Mayer identifies before – in laments of adult “kidults” who refuse to grow up and child “prostitots” who grow up before their time. But Amortality sets itself apart by situating these trends within a broader social context: of longer life spans, greater wealth, and the decline of traditional scripts around family, work and religion.
Those of us living in the affluent West, at least, are theoretically free to live our lives in whatever way, and in whatever order, we please. And that newfound freedom means that more of us are choosing to stay in perpetual motion – delaying childrearing or forgoing it altogether, falling in love, seeking out the next adventure – whether that motion is an attempt to ward off the Grim Reaper or simply a desire to maximise our exposure to life’s pleasures.
But not all amortals are created equal. Amortality may challenge ageism, but it is also a product of age prejudice itself. It seems no coincidence that most of the “ageless living” we see in Amortality is focused on the younger end of the life span.
Still, it would be wrong to dismiss amortals as self-indulgent hedonists. Indeed, their way of life may soon be a matter of necessity.
Mayer’s concerns are largely cultural – family, love, religion, consumption – but she also raises an important political and economic question. Namely: what do we do about our ageing population? In an era in which many of us will live beyond 80, does it really make sense to cease work at 65, or even 70? Work doesn’t just ward off boredom, vice and need, Mayer argues – if we want to stay young, “delaying retirement will do us more good than any elixirs of youth currently available on the internet.”
Amortality, after all, isn’t just about living longer, or even about living forever. It’s about living better: mentally, physically and experientially. Perhaps this spirit is where the real value of living agelessly lies. If we’re going to enjoy extra years, we may as well take advantage of them.