In 2014, Ezekiel J Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist and a Vice Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, published an article in The Atlantic entitled, Why I Hope to Die at 75. Its subtitle is “an argument that society and families—and you—will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly”. In brief, he argues that, though death is a loss,
“living too long is also a loss. It 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.”
In support of his argument, he points out that half of the people aged 80 and older have functional limitations and a third of people 85 and older have Alzheimer’s.
All of which is understandable: no-one welcomes the prospect of severe physical limitation or cognitive decline. What touched a live nerve, however, was stumbling upon his return to the subject in 2019 – at the age of 62 – with an interview in the MIT Technology Review in which he explained:
“These people who live a vigorous life to 70, 80, 90 years of age—when I look at what those people ‘do’, almost all of it is what I classify as play. It’s not meaningful work. They’re riding motorcycles; they’re hiking. Which can all have value—don’t get me wrong. But if it’s the main thing in your life? Ummm, that’s not probably a meaningful life.”
Which is where I begin to part company with his general thesis. Does life cease to have “meaning” if you don’t “work”? And is it fair or accurate to classify what most people do after the age of 70 as “play”? And what, exactly, is “work” anyway?
In a recent article in the Financial Times, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, pointed out that, as the economy reels from the impact of COVID-19,
“one source of capital, as in past pandemics, is bucking these trends: social capital. This typically refers to the network of relationships across communities that support and strengthen societies. From surveys, we know that people greatly value these networks, even though social capital itself is rarely assigned a monetary value … Even as other capital has crumbled, the stock of social capital has risen, acting as a countercyclical stabiliser across communities. We see this daily on our doorsteps through small acts of neighbourly kindness. We see it in the activities of community groups, charities and philanthropic movements, whose work has risen in importance and prominence. And we see it too in the vastly increased numbers of people volunteering to help.”
He calls on societies and policymakers to “recognise and strengthen the social sector in good times as well as bad” and to give “much greater recognition of the importance social capital plays in our economies and societies”.
So how does that interact with Emanuel’s views on ageing? According to the UK Civil Society Almanac 2019, 25 per cent of those aged 75 and over volunteer at least once a month. The nature of the volunteering – obviously – is not stated: it may range from (eg) serving on the local council or helping at the local charity shop (which Emanuel would no doubt agree was “work”) to (eg) ringing the bells on Sunday morning or doing front-of-house for the local am-dram production (which Emanuel would probably regard as “play”). And in addition, the Civil Society Almanac figures do not, presumably, capture informal volunteering such as grandparents looking after the children while the parents are at work or oldies who do their housebound neighbours’ food-shopping – and I would suggest that all that goes towards building the social capital to which Andy Haldane rightly attaches so much importance. (And living as I do in a small rural community with a fairly high age-profile, I’m very conscious of the fact that in a family where both parents work full-time, once they’ve got home, cooked supper and put the children to bed they’re unlikely to have much enthusiasm for starting to put the parish magazine together or organising the next flower & produce show.)
Further, it depends on how one defines “work”. Charles Handy, the author of The Empty Raincoat, has written extensively about what he describes as “the portfolio life”: “You can have a mixed portfolio of paid work, gift work or voluntary work, study work, where you continue to learn, and then homework, running the home.” But his crunch point is that it’s all work, whether paid or not.
From our own experience, we put quite a lot of effort into writing this blog, partly because there seems to be a lot of stuff to write about but principally because we want to get it right. In short, we’re academic hobbyists (or, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, academic geeks), and for my own part I do it partly out of interest and partly to keep my brain from atrophying. But writing what we hope is a serious academic blog certainly isn’t “play” – or, at any rate, it’s no more “play” than writing a formal refereed article for the Ecclesiastical Law Journal. If it feels like work, and it looks like work…
So to conclude: there is certainly more than a grain of truth in what Emanuel says – and I’ve commented previously on what I regard as an unfortunate tendency in some parts of the voluntary sector to regard all forms of volunteering and charitable activity as of equal worth – which, clearly, they are not. But I do think that Emanuel underestimates the intergenerational dimension of building social capital and creating a sense of community. And without a sense of community, what would society look like?
FC (Best before: July 2020)
I believe that a meaningful life can be had in your seventies (am 70) but my life of volunteering and serving stopped dead when the government decided that those over 70 should not be involved.
At a stroke my public ministry was knocked on the head. I am unable to leave home (apart from shopping for essentials), unable to enter Church, unable to deliver pastoral care and home visits and home communion and even more unable to exercise my preaching and teaching ministry, twice a month (as agreed with my Incumbent) as part of my “Working Agreement” with him. The Bishop specifically excluded all over 70 from any active ministry – and in obedience I am partially redundant.
However, as one door closed, another opened. I had been running a Church Facebook group for some time – suddenly that took off as a means of outreach, wider than just church members and we’ve had an explosion of interest , gaining something like 80 new members contributing to our community. We have also opened a Public Facebook page to stream worship and prayer which has attracted upwards of 80 for live events, and several hundred for the resulting video being share wider via other social media platforms.
I post Daily Prayer, Daily meditations, local news and needs for volunteering, items for our foodbank (set up as a community activity and working from our Church Hall) and items of interest from our local authority, cascading information from them onto a whatapp group also setup for people who don’t have facebook or twitter, but can use an online chat or messenger system from an ancient laptop, computer or early smartphone.
I now record a sermon, alternating with our incumebent every other Sunday and take part in online worship.
I care for my spouse who is shielded due to her ailments, despite being under 70. We venture out once a week to the shops for essential, in the main for our pets (we have four) who don’t understand “make do and mend” to coin a phrase and want their regular treats.
It might not be work, but I am up saying morning prayer, and feeding animals daily from about 5.30 am and retire from activity online by 9.30 with Compline from the BCP.
What value does this have? Hard to define, but I am fulfilled, keen to develop my online ministry (having been a member of an internet church since 2008) on our own parish outreach and evangelisation as well as globally on the internet church site.
I am active on twitter and have been for 12 years or more. My spouse on the other hand has had me doing work indoors and in the garden, while she worries about being held back from the job she loves by the shielding. She might retire, but wants to do so on her terms, not by a decree from the government. She is as active as I am, in different ways. She doesn’t do God in any meaningful way, but is a believer and will occasionally join me in prayer, particularly for our wider family, several who are NHS professionals.
Is our contribution valueless? Not Worthwhile? I will leave others to make that judgement – I am happy, surely that is enough for anyone?
Nothing wrong with being a geek! Maybe helps to get it right.
From The Revd Dr Celia Kenny:
As a long-time follower of Law and Religion UK, I am stimulated to respond to this morning’s post (Work, play and ageing), not least because the views of Ezekiel J Emanuel (Why I Hope to Die at 75) are pertinent in the midst of a pandemic which is particularly efficient in ridding the planet of its oldest members.
I will leave aside the ageist crassness of a man who dared to comment, as a youth not yet 60, on the meaning of life over 70. Instead, let me suggest that Emanuel because he does not offer a clear definition of either work or play, has missed the point that the concepts overlap.
In my lifetime (female, 73), I have ‘worked’ as a volunteer teacher in Jamaica (1968); a chambermaid in Oslo (hitch-hiking on the mandatory tour of Europe in the 60s); cabin crew of Aer Lingus (definitely work); a music teacher (at home while raising sons and daughters); writer and editor on Law & Religion (discussing points of grammar with Frank Cranmer counts as play); lecturer (honorary at QUB, so perhaps the university regarded that as play). Along the way, I have been awarded degrees from Trinity College Dublin, Edinburgh University and Cardiff University, as well as teaching diplomas from RSAM and from the British School of Meditation.
Now in isolation in Dublin due to COVID-19, I have launched an online resource for Meditation and begun an online Diploma in Fashion Design with a Dublin Academy. I continue as part of several dialogue groups including Religion & Atheism UK (now zooming), and as an active member of the Irish Green Party.
It has been impossible to distinguish, fully, between the ‘play’ and the ‘work’ aspects in this list of activities. That is because ‘play’ is the expression of the human creative impulse. Play provides us with a forum in which we can explore the limits of the possible and begin to imagine the hitherto impossible. Is that not what most of us do, to a greater or lesser degree, when we are at work? I would argue that meaning is constructed in the inner realm where we imaginatively and playfully push out boundaries. Chronos has no sway over this realm.
Rev Dr Celia G Kenny
Ezekiel J Emanuel might like to read Anthony Trollope’s “The Fixed Period” – his futuristic narrative set in a plainly Victorian 1980 about the President of an erstwhile tiny colony of Britain who is devoted to the plainly beneficial project, which he has somehow got the new Republic’s Assembly to adopt, for all who reach the advanced age of 68 to be sequestered for a year of supposed luxury before undergoing euthanasia so as to relieve them of the burdens of decrepitude and the public purse of the cost of their unremunerative final years.
Sadly, the first candidate to approach the end of his “fixed period” is a close friend of the President, is prosperous, hale and hearty, and has a daughter whom the President’s son wishes to marry! The President’s agonisings about how to rescue his great and benevolent project for the public good make up a large part of this slim satirical volume.
(There is, of course, a difference between involuntary euthanasia and voluntary assisted dying!)