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Niedner: The good and bad of living 150 years

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: April 11, 2013 6:37AM



“The first person to live to 150 is alive today,” declares a current billboard near O’Hare Airport. Below, in smaller letters, a major financial company offers assistance at planning for longer retirements.

Perhaps because the journey that took me past that advertisement would end in Florida, I thought first of Ponce de León, who long ago traveled there looking for the fountain of youth. Back in elementary school, we laughed at him, a grown man who believed such fanciful things. Ridiculous or not, his quest obviously continues.

My 2-year-old granddaughter came next to mind. If that billboard prophesies truly, she has as much chance as anyone to become a sesquicentennarian, which means that as soon as she can read, she’d better start studying up on a whole lot more than IRAs and 401(k) options.

Her generation will surely need to revolutionize financial planning. Even if they must ultimately work until age 80, her contemporaries will need savings enough to last through 70 years of retirement.

Perhaps folks will have to work to 100. Can you imagine staying sane in the same job for 75 years? Even now, work activities change and new positions emerge, but we will always need someone to collect our garbage, police the streets, tend to the critically ill, and teach reading, writing and quantum mechanics. Perhaps folks will routinely go to college twice, once at 18 and again at 60, as a way to retool for another career.

Some things about living to 150 sound enticing. I think, for example of all the novels one could read, or the plays and concerts one could enjoy. There would be time to see most every corner of the world.

However, even some of the most welcome prospects have a potential shadow side. Think for a moment about maintaining a healthy marriage with the same partner for 120 years. I suspect even my patient, forgiving wife might ultimately propose a statute of limitations or a marital year of jubilee. Even should couples somehow stay together for a century or longer, the pharmaceuticals required for spicing up the last 80 years or so suggest, if nothing else, what kinds of stock purchases would make the best bets in a retirement plan.

A friend who started her family early recently celebrated the birth of her 23rd great-grandchild. Should that child live to 150, he or she might one day see great-great-great-grandchildren, and they could number in the thousands. Even if a grand, old matriarch managed to remember all their names, merely sending them birthday greetings would prove a full-time occupation.

Eventually, our newest generation will need the services of morticians, although that line of work may change significantly. Unless we discover the magic of which Ponce de León dreamed, human beings will end their days quite thoroughly re-engineered. They will have titanium joints, rayon tubes for arteries, porcelain teeth, and mechanical pumps in place of hearts and vital organs. Perhaps the deceased will be recycled rather than buried or cremated.

Funerals will change, too. For one thing, convening extended family, plus all the colleagues from several careers, may require a small stadium. And it could take half a day, complete with intermission, to tell all the stories required for summing up a century and half of living.

The longer I ponder it, the prospect of living to 150 seems as much curse as blessing. Should it prove reality and not merely another conquistador’s dream-quest, today’s toddlers had better hope investment companies aren’t the only ones thinking about keeping life meaningful in the crowded, multigenerational world in which they will grow old.

Frederick Niedner is a professor of theology at Valparaiso University.



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