Living forever

If we all live to be 150, where will we park?

Published April 9, 1999 6:30PM (EDT)

Scientists recently managed to double the life span of the common fruit fly. Instead of
having only two weeks to hang around on rotting fruit, now they have four. Last month,
these same scientists gathered to debate the likelihood that humans would soon be able to do the same thing. (Live longer, that is. Not hang around on rotting fruit. That has always been an option.)

The answer was yes. "Future generations may be able to avail themselves
of scientifically established techniques to stretch the human life span like a piece of taffy until it reaches 150, even 200 years," reported the New York Times. The piece went on to say that you would not look 200 years old, however that might look (I'm thinking dried fruit). You would live out your extra generations looking and feeling like a 40- or 50-year-old.

I cannot speak for fruit flies -- though with all that time on their hands (wings? feet?) I expect they'll be mastering English shortly and that sort of thing won't be necessary -- but I personally do not want my lifespan stretched like taffy. In my experience, no good comes of stretching taffy. As much taffy as you have is usually more than you want.

Likewise life. Who really wants to be around for another 150 years? Imagine it. Movies will cost $155, and most will star Adam Sandler. Seven-year-olds will be having sex. Health insurance will cost more than a mortgage, forcing people to live in their SUVs, which will by that time be larger than most single-family dwellings anyway. Economy-class airline passengers will be hung vertically on racks similar to those used by dry cleaners. The parking situation alone would be enough to keep me from signing on.

I will concede, however, that the people of the 22nd century will need some extra
time. Projections based on current figures suggest that it will take an average of 22 hours on hold to reach a customer service representative at Viacom, several weeks to cross L.A. on Route 495, and the better part of a decade to stand on line at the DMV.

And certainly there would be some pluses to living to 200; my Disney stock might finally do something, and it will be entertaining to watch bell bottoms come around for the fifth time. But by and large the idea of being alive in the year 2110 is about as appealing as saltwater taffy (current stocks of which will still be on hand in 2110).

As for stopping the aging process, pish-tush. It can't really be done, even if you do
manage to stem the advance of physical decrepitude. For aging is more than liver spots
and cataracts. Aging is the natural and inevitable process of growing bored with almost everything, and disgusted with everything else. It begins around 35. You start to grow indifferent toward everything you once loved. Your career, your hobbies, Thai food, flirting, getting dressed up. You grow cynical. You grow jaded. Bit by bit, year by year, everything begins to seem stale and pointless. (When, in reality, it is you who is stale and pointless.)

So desperate are you for something different and meaningful that you decide to have
children. This passes the time for another 25 years. By then you're pushing 60. You retire. You travel a bit -- maybe five years, tops. (By the time you're 70, the list of countries you actually want to visit has dwindled significantly: Canada, anything Caribbean, Ireland and any country that doesn't put its bathrooms down the hall.)

Imagine having another 100 years. What will there be left to do? Complain. Compete with your daughters for men. Complain. Swat fruit flies (a burgeoning problem, thanks to research gone awry in the late 20th century).

The system as it stands has a certain elegance and logic. God makes you get sickly
and grotesque, so that by the time you're on your last legs, the thought of leaving it all
behind is actually kind of appealing. You die and make room for someone new, someone
full of optimism and muscle tone and enthusiasm for today's new music.

What would a society do with its old people if they refused to die? How would we
handle this ballooning population of healthy but deeply bored and irritable 150-year-old 50-year-olds? To be sure, there will be growth in certain industries (menopause research comes to mind), but how will we manage to employ everyone? Most of the 80-plus crowd will be forced to retire, for what company could stay in business dishing out annual pay increases to its staff for 130 years? How can cutting-edge technology companies bring in new blood if the old blood won't go away?

So they'll have no jobs, no income. What do we do with them? Take all the money
that would have been funneled into funeral homes and adult diapers and people hired to
drive those electric carts at airports and use it as a form of welfare? Create subsidized housing out of the thousands of cruise ships dry-docked with the advent of hale and vigorous oldsters? I don't know. I only know I don't want to be there.

Some would accuse me of sour grapes -- that because I was born too soon to take
advantage of this Brave New World, I can only condemn it. Maybe, maybe not. But I
will say this. If the grapes are sour, you have only to leave them out in a sunny spot in
your kitchen and they will ripen, and fruit flies will appear, and when they do, you ask
them what they think about it.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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