I'm sitting at a picnic table in the park, watching the kids, and I suddenly realize that if we don't go and totally fuck things up, most of the children I see playing in the playground today will still be alive eighty years from now. This is not an expectation my parents had when I was a member of the under-10 set, and yet it's true.
When I was born, the expectation for a life well lived was five years of the unrestrained bliss of being an infant and toddler, followed by entry into kindergarten and between 12 and 15 years of public school. If you were rich and/or smart (I qualified as one of the latter), you chose what you would like to do for your life's work, and went to college or university, got a diploma or degree, got a job, got married, bought a house, had kids, paid off the mortgage while raising kids and working at the same job for forty years. The kids grew up, moved out, got married and had families and jobs of their own. Eventually, forty or so years later, you would be expected to retire with a gold watch, a decent company pension, a paid off house, and the expectancy that you'd have ten or so years to travel and enjoy "the good life" before you kicked the bucket.
That was the expectation for a life well lived when I was born. Out of all of my friends, I only know of one couple who have actually lived that particular life pattern (or are living it, I should say, as they're not retired yet). The rest of us have gone through career changes, going back to school, children with disabilities, separation and divorce, being laid off and fired or even never being able to find a decent job at all. And through it all, constant education and re-education as the world tilted and changed around us.
Life expectancy has blossomed. Mozart died aged 35 years, and that was not exceptional in his day and age. In fact, it wasn't exceptional in Austria as late as 1900, when the life expectancy for males was 37.8 years, and for females, 39.9 years. In other words, there was very little change in over 200 years.
But the next fifty years saw the discovery of penicillin, and other advancements that saw the average life expectancy almost double, from about 38 years to 62 years for males and 67 years for females. In the United States, where the average lifespan had been 48 years for males and 51 years for females in 1900, the life expectancy of a male born in 1950 was 66 years, and a female could expect to live 71 years.
And the sixty-two years since 1950 have seen the advent of things that were not even imagined in 1950, things that have increased our lifespan even more. Our cities are actually cleaner than they were a century ago, mostly due to improvements in technology over the last fifty years. We have many more diagnostic tools at our disposal, and many more ways of dealing with illness and disease when they do strike.
I've just completed two on-line life expectancy calculators. I did so without trepidation, knowing the news would be good, but it could be better. After all, I don't smoke and never have, I drink very rarely, I walk for half- to three-quarters of an hour six days per week, my blood pressure and cholesterol and blood sugar number are within healthy ranges, and I'm working on improving my dietary habits and losing weight.
At the age of fifty one, I've learned that I can expect to live another thirty-five to forty-five years more, most of it in good health, and if I lose about fifty pounds and raise my good cholesterol level a bit, I can add anywhere from half a year to ten years to that total. Indeed, one of the surveys boldly proclaimed, "You could live to be 105!"
By the time he was my age, Mozart had been dead for sixteen years. Barring sudden catastrophe, I can expect as many more healthy years of life as he had total years of life. And the question becomes, "What am I going to do with myself?"