The most astonishing physical change in all of human history happened mostly during the last century: the doubling of the human life span in much of the world.  Or so opined an interesting article in the November 2016 edition of journal First Things entitled “Whistling Past the Grave“.   Author Ephraim Radner writes:

“In genealogies of modernity, too little has been said about this remarkable extension of life.  This is a grave oversight.  The very recent change in the life span has brought with it a host of social and personal practices that have become the focal points of cultural struggle…  We are astonished by rapid changes in moral norms, especially those related to procreation and family, because, like the doubling of life spans, they are unlike anything previously known in history. 

Only one hundred years ago, for nearly everyone it would have been unimaginable that women would choose to delay childbirth until their late thirties, even early forties, almost an unimaginable as men marrying men.  The same is true of today’s widespread assumption that death at sixty-five is ‘early’.”

Some observations on this profound change are:

  • We are much better fed despite large increases in global population in the same time period, leading to longer life spans.
  • We have extended our educations to be far longer than our predecessors as a norm, and enter the workforce later as a result.
  • There is a pro-longed adolescence as young people put off settling down into family life and often live at home far longer than their predecessors.
  • Our culture is less connected with death, where once death was all around and all the time.  This contributes to less engagement with religion and the spiritual side of life. 
  • An only distant mortality allows people to put off child-bearing to a later time and focus instead on populating their individual lives with rich experiences.  As in Gustav Flint’s 1910 painting above, for our predecessors there was a sense of generational continuity through childbirth, despite the threat of death.  The nature of the purpose and meaning we give to our lives has changed across a longer duration.
  • We have focused more on the extension of life as a meaningful moral project, putting a much greater focus on health, diets, exercise and anti-aging products. 

However, in the end, death continues to frame life and we should not lose sight of this in the way we choose to live.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...