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)