On the Pandemic Value of Old Age

Monday, December 7, 2020

Ezekiel Emanuel and the Pandemic of Ageism

A year ago, the longevity tables had maintained a fairly steady trajectory in terms of predicting life spans. For a white male born in 1947 and who was still fairly healthy at age 65, it would not be unreasonable for that person to believe he had a fair chance of another dozen years to live. No guarantees, of course! “Life is a rental agreement without any lease.”

At this point, I have about five years left, if the average holds. But short of an unexpected medical diagnosis, there is no way of knowing how long my life will actually be. It would certainly make things easier if I knew. Even though my bucket list of writing projects is far too long to get finished, no matter how much time I am given, at least I could bear down on the most important ones and not get so easily distracted by the temptation to work on rough drafts of poems that may or may not turn out to have deserved that much attention.

While making creative choices has always been a process imbricated in the contingent, the indifference of young people to the plight of the elderly during the pandemic has been a sobering counterfactual. The majority of young people are not wearing masks. They really don’t care whether my generation lives or dies. Actually, I think they would prefer if we just caught covid and died at home. In their best case scenario, we should not put any strain on the medical infrastructure whatsoever. Just get the bleep out of the way.

The evisceration of my age group begins with justifying our lack of making useful contributions to the world. Ezekiel Emanuel is on record to this effect: “There are not that many people who continue to be active and engaged and actually creative past 75. It’s a very small number.If you look at really smart people, there aren’t that many writing brand-new books after 75, and really developing new areas where they are leading thinkers. They tend to be re-tilling familiar areas that they’ve worked on for a long time.”

At first glance, one might say that there is a preponderance of evidence to back up his Venn diagram of old age and intellectual breakthroughs. The relatively muted response to these ideas, especially from young scholars, tells me that I am not imagining the seething hostility towards the elderly that finds ample additional benefits in downsizing the baby boomers. Emmanuel might use a neutral tone of voice in stating that “One of the statistics I like to point out is if you look at the federal budget, $7 goes to people over 65 for every dollar for people under 18,” but behind the “objectivity” of a bean counter is a social planner who would prefer to put one particular sack of beans into a pot of water and get them ready to cook.

At the risk of being accused of special pleading, therefore, I offer the following response:

Almost all people, no matter how acutely gifted, play it safe. Risky intellectual inquiry, in fact, has a high attrition rate. It’s a rare person, at any point in their life, who cross-examines unfamiliar propositions. Even in a cohort of “really smart people,” most turn 50 years old without having written a book that reconfigures the basic assumptions of their intellectual domain.

If, however, one evolves into a leading thinker who only slowly becomes pertinent in their area of discourse, it is likely that they will continue to develop the implications of their ideas well into old age. Such detail work is to be encouraged as an essential outcome of starting out at the margin. The worth of the life of such a thinker, at an advanced age, is not to be measured by whether they are capable of producing a new book, but by that person’s presence as a living thinker whose unanticipated insights still seem new in their relevance.

But one doesn’t need to be such a thinker to deserve a longer life. Emanuel regards “play” as not being meaningful activity, and that makes me suspicious of what he might regard as important intellectual work, for at the heart of thoughtful endeavor is a sense of play. If one does not value play as an essentially meaningful activity of old age, I doubt that play was enthusiastically present in the correlating youth of such proponents.

And what of those people who gave up playfulness in service to their country, Dr. Emanuel? What of the military veterans who put in 20 or 25 or even 30 years — and remember that their families serve with them, too, eh? What of their old age? Do they not deserve to play in their old age, who endured severe restrictions so that you in middle age could exercise the right to free speech on behalf of civilian chauvinists everywhere. “Proud C.C., stand back! Stand by!” Such is the counsel of Dr. Emanuel.

LINKS:

https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/08/21/238642/a-doctor-and-medical-ethicist-argues-life-after-75-is-not-worth-living/

https://hcmg.wharton.upenn.edu/profile/zemanuel/
“Ezekiel J. Emanuel is Vice Provost for Global Initiatives and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. From January 2009 to January 2011, he served as special advisor for health policy to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. ….. Dr. Emanuel has written and edited 9 books and over 200 scientific articles.”

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