Amortality: Why It’s No Longer Necessary to Act Your Age
2011-04-21 0:00

By Catherine Mayer |

If one place on earth has vanquished nature and stopped the clocks, it is Las Vegas. Built on land without water or any reliable resource apart from the blazing sun, the resort entombs visitors in the permanent, cool, jangling dusk of hotel casinos. Its skyscape positions ancient Egypt near Renaissance Venice and fin de siècle Paris. I had come to this confected city to find out if the Cenegenics Medical Institute, "the world’s largest age-management practice," could subvert the laws of human biology with similar ease. First I had to locate Cenegenics, and though you might think it would be easy to spot a building described by its tenants as "quite a lot like the White House," the cab driver took more than a few passes before we were able to pick out the right White House from the rows of White Houses that have sprouted in the Nevada desert.

Kendrick Brinson / Luceo

That’s the Vegas paradox: despite the mind-boggling range of architectural styles and eras represented, there’s a remarkable uniformity to it all. The residents are similarly homogeneous. Perma-tanned and toned, many of them sport a uniface common to both genders and across the income range, from bellhops to casino owners. The uniface is defined by absences: its eyebrows have been plucked, threaded or waxed into submission; its fine little nose is free from bumps and bulges. Above all, it looks neither young nor old. It is ageless. It is amortal.

Amortality — the term I coined for the burgeoning trend of living agelessly — is a product of the world many of us now inhabit, a sprawl of virtual Las Vegases, devoid of history and shorn of landmarks that might provide guidelines for what is expected of us as the years pass. Youth used to be our last hurrah before the onset of maturity and eventual dotage, each milestone — childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, retirement, golden years, decline — benchmarked against a series of culturally determined ideals. But as our life spans have lengthened — across the developed world, we are now living 30 years longer than we were at the beginning of the 20th century — the ages of man have started to elide. If you doubt that statement, think how hard it is to answer the following questions: What’s the best age to have children? Or to settle down with a life partner? Or to retire? When might a woman consider herself middle-aged — at 40, 50, 60? Does that differ for a man?

The meaning of age has become elusive, visual clues untrustworthy.

Children dress like louche adults. Their parents slouch around in hoodies and sneakers. Rising phalanxes of Dorian Grays rely on exercise, diet and cosmetic procedures to remain transcendentally youthful, while glowing teens and 20-somethings are propelled by some of those same procedures into a semblance of premature aging.

The rules of age-appropriate behavior that used to be reliably drummed into us by parents and teachers, church and state, no longer hold sway. But we haven’t lost faith; we’ve just transferred it, to scientists and celebrities. Hollywood is the home of amortality, the music industry its outreach program. "I think you should just keep going while you can, doing what you like," Mick Jagger observed at 66, ignoring his pronouncement in May 1975 that he’d rather be dead than be singing "Satisfaction" at — or presumably long after — 45.

Doing what you like might include adopting children at 49 and 50, like Madonna; becoming a first-time dad at 62, like Elton John; preparing to marry a woman 60 years younger than yourself, like Hugh Hefner; or, like Jagger himself, reversing the traditional order of marriage and bachelorhood. These are amortal choices. But amortality is not invariably synonymous with extended youth. Meryl Streep represents a different expression of amortality, a true agelessness. And Woody Allen exhibits one of the classic symptoms of amortality, constructing a personal and professional life full of distractions. He never rests. He has turned out at least one film a year for all but three of the last 40 years and performs regularly with a jazz band. As he told an interviewer, "When you’re worried about this joke, and this costume, and this wig, and that location and the dailies, you’re not worried about death and the brevity of life."

The defining characteristic of amortals is that they live the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from their late teens right up until death. They rarely ask themselves if their behavior is age-appropriate, because that concept has little meaning for them. They don’t structure their lives around the inevitability of death, because they prefer to ignore it. Instead, they continue to chase aspirations and covet new goods and services. Amortals assume all options are always open. They postpone retirement by choice, not just necessity; one of the reasons the American Association of Retired Persons changed its name to AARP was that many in its demographic were, in fact, still working. And they’re having children later than ever — and often relying on fertility treatments to do so.


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