15-17 October 1996
Marina Congress Center
Helsinki Finland

Twice as Many Years as our Ancestors:
And the Concept of a Life Plan

Arthur E. Imhof

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This keynote address is based upon three recent publications by the author:
  1. a CD-ROM Historical Demography (cf. left)
  2. a book publication The increase of our life expectancy during the last three centuries, and its consequences (cf. right)
  3. an article An Ars moriendi for our Time: To Live a Fulfilled Live - to Die a Peaceful Death

These publications include all original illustrations which can be clicked on as hotwords in the following text (or seen in a slide-show). The figures have been highly compressed for speedier transmission (e.g. via modems) so that they may be viewed in the World Wide Web.

Twice as Many Years as our Ancestors:
And the Concept of a Life Plan

With regard to our life expectancy, two very different developments have taken place during the past few centuries. On the one hand, the widely diverse ages at death of previous generations have become increasingly focussed. Whereas the average once was around thirty years- with wide swings upwards and downwards -, it lies nowadays between seventy and eighty years. This implies, however, no guarantee for the individual. Even in our day, many people still die an early death because of uncurable chronic diseases such as AIDS, or because of accidents or suicides. But even if the fundamental change from an insecure to a relatively secure biological life time has not yet reached its final position (the average maximum life expectancy of humans seems to be around 85 years), most of us can already now normally count upon a long life of seventy years and more. As never before in historical times, it is worthwhile to invest in life: economically, physically, emotionally, mentally.

On the other hand, life has become infinitely shorter during the same time period. Even if it is difficult to prove, we may assume that most of our ancestors shared the Christian belief in resurrection and an eternal life after death. In our day, probably most of us Westerners no longer share these views. What then is a doubling or tripling of our life expectancy on earth, compared with the loss of faith in the Beyond? Against this background we need not be astonished that most of us go through life in reverse, as it were, with our backs turned on old age and dying. We worship youth because it is the furthest removed from the final exit from life. One can understand why the body, as the only guarantee of our remaining earthly life, is valued so highly once an afterlife has been rationalized away. When our body is no more, we are no more. Therefore we watch our bodies incessantly, cultivate and pamper them, do bodybuilding and everything else in order to ensure a smooth functioning.

"Gained years" are not automatically "fulfilled years". Reaching this goal depends heavily on our own active investments in life, i.e. fulfilling it with meaning. In this context, the age-specific distribution of suicides is alarming. Certainly there is suicide at all stages of life. But suicide grows more common in people over seventy or so, as researchers and gerontologists confirm. Our apprehension becomes even more explicit if we combine the historically constant age distribution of suicides - shown here in the former German Democratic Republic for the years 1961, 1977, 1984, and 1989 (the figures all have the same shape) - with the rapid increase of the at-risk population. Between 1871 and 1986, the proportion of men and women in Germany reaching at least an age of 70 years rose between 300 % and 400 %, of 80 years between 600 % and 800 %, and of 85 years between 1000 % and 1500 %. In this process of the rectangularisation of our survival curves, more and more men, and especially women are pushing towards the mentioned average maximum life expectancy of the human species. But if people spend their lives interested only in physical activity, but not in spiritual-cultural matters, they should not be surprised to find themselves confronting a great spiritual emptiness when their physical powers wane in old age and they do not know how to fill the extra days, months, and years.

But this need not be so: the situation could be prevented with a lifelong cultivation of spiritual and artistic interests. To foster this development, I propose the realisation of a lifeplan. This concept is not meant as a time table, fixed once and forever. Merely, its motto could read: To be human is to accept and meaningfully endure the tension within us from the beginning - the tension between becoming and being, between being and perishing. The fact is that more than half of today's Europeans were born after 1950. Thus for the first time a large stratum of Europe's population has not experienced the immediate threats of "plague, hunger, and war" that reigned for millenia. For the first time the majority of our societies has been given the astounding opportunity of living and shaping their lives in terms of a seemingly calculable end. Doesn't this offer an amazing chance to realize a life plan? For the first time we can weigh and coordinate the strengths and weaknesses of each phase of our lives. It no longer makes sense to live just from one day to the next. Given the often experienced weakening of our physical abilities before our intellectual ones- if continously trained -, it is important to cultivate from early youth not only physical, but also intellectual and cultural interests, both in oneself and in others, so that one finds pleasure in each phase of life and even the last years of life are worth living. Even for those who still die early, as victims of accidents or incurable diseases, the realisation of a life plan makes sense. Everything happened for them, too, at the right time. Dying young or old, nobody should berate him- or herself on the deathbed for having missed something. There should be no last-minute panic to catch up on what cannot be recouped. The goal should be "to live fulfilled - to die serenely", at whatever age.

With regard to the construction of a life plan, the following figures might be of help. Let's consider the development of the lifespan budget in the twentieth century. Around 1900, an average life lasted for about 440,000 hours. About one third had to be used for life's necessities such as eating and sleeping, another third for work. The remaining third was for leisure. Until around 1980, the average lifetime had expanded to about 610,000 hours. Still one third went to life's necessities. This percentage will probably hold true even in the future, when we will have about 700,000 hours to live. What was, is, and will be changing however, is the amount of leisure time (per day, per week, per year, per lifetime). Following the development and implementation of a life plan, it certainly would be a good idea to put the increasing part of free time not on the stomach in the first place (i.e. not only invest this spare time in bodily activities and pleasure), but rather to put it on top. Besides travelling around the world, playing tennis, etc., intellecutal and cultural activities should be cultivated as well, beginning early in life. (One concrete example of how this concept has several times successfully been implemented within the normal teaching activities of a university lecturer can be followed in the World Wide Web by everyone. The goal always was to develop lifelong lasting interests of very different kinds in young students. Try it yourself!)

It might be easier to follow and realise the motto of the life plan if we consider that we not only have twice or three times as many years as our ancestors, but that we have twice or three times as many good years. Our nutrition is more assured and better than ever before. Infectious diseases are more under control than previously. We work half as long as our ancestors and generally under better conditions. Economically, with some exceptions, we can afford many more things. Information of all kinds, obtained through numerous television and radio channels, an overabundance of print media, museums, libraries, concert halls, and unversities all over the world, is available to many of us as never before. Dozens of generations before us have striven for a long life, and a long good life. We have it. We are living a dream come true for humankind. To be sure, the current control over "plague, hunger, and war" and the resulting increase in life span to an age never before achieved are not guaranteed forever. New plagues threaten us, such as AIDS or wars in different parts of the world. (How long this unusual state will last depends in large measure on our vigilance and all of our willingness to contribute.) The historian knows plenty of examples of stagnating, even regressive life expectancy. I don't want to paint images of horror - for some, such images qualify the change from an insecure to a secure lifetime and bring about an anxiety that is hard to conquer. It is a mistake to let fear paralyze you.

It is true, developments since World War II have brought us much that is positive, particularly the shift from an uncertain to the certain life span. But the same developments have brought us gravely negative changes as well: the widespread loss of faith in eternity, the possibility of prolonged illness, and the decay of our communal structures, a result of the increasing individualisation which has become possible by the mentioned shift from an uncertain to a predictable life span.

Furthermore, the realisation of a life plan can be considered an Ars moriendi for our time. Spending the many years of a long life according to the concept of an Ars vivendi - i.e. converting all gained years into fulfilled years according to a life plan- might make it easier at the end to depart life at the right time. The motto turns thus into: To live a fulfilled live - to die a peaceful death. In this context however, we have to consider that the change from an insecure to a secure life span provided us - at least during the "best years of life" - with the treacherous feeling of a "bit of immortality". But there is, of course, nothing like "a bit of immortality". In general, we have become accustomed to being very proud of the fact that our average life expectancy has doubled, even tripled, within a few generations. If something happens to one of us prematurely, he or she can usually be promptly repaired. We believe it is our right to feel nearly immortal during our "best years". A slew of prevention campaigns often imply that we may indeed soon attain immortality: with a little more jogging, no more smoking, rigorous stair climbing, consumption of low-fat milk, regular "check-ups", it might be possible to put death off altogether. Once upon a time illnesses carried meaning with them. They were taken as a benign hint from God to stop our sinful ways in time. What sense, if any, do health problems make nowadays? They certainly no longer have their old meaning. And yet they often provide the only chance in our hectic lives to turn inward and reflect. Are we afraid, we will not find anything in there, within ourselves?

How then can we re-implant within ourselves mortality as a natural part of our existence? Even if death in our time has become a more modest presence, leaving most of us in peace for decades, it ultimately prevails. Making use of Finland as the venue of the conference, and combining this fact with its main topic, i.e. Gerontechnology, we are given the excellent opportunity of closely documenting and studying death's more modest presence in the work of one of Finland's greatest artists: Hugo Simberg (1873-1917). In his paintings, etchings, and drawings, Simberg dealt with death's increasingly modest presence time and again. The recent WWW-technology helps us now in a previously unimaginable way to have a fresh new look at some of these works of art, and by doing this, re-introduce death and dying, reminding us of our mortality even during the best years of life.

If you should be interested in the workshop Internet for Elderly People (Munich, October 10, 1996), you are most welcome!

Started: Saturday, 25. May 1996 - 15:55:48

Last revision: Sunday, 29. September 1996 - 13:45:32

Arthur E. Imhof