THE BLOG
10/28/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Why I Want to Live Past 75

Betsie Van Der Meer via Getty Images

The best thing about Ezekiel Emanuel's "Why I Hope To Die at 75" is that it calls attention to the most consequential development of our time, the aging of the American and global population. Emanuel's long essay, in the latest edition of The Atlantic, makes the case why 75 is a socially and economically ideal time to die.

His argument is colorful and contrarian, but also based on 20th century assumptions. And, it is as misguided as it is unimaginative. For Emanuel's thesis to make sense, we must accept that "the miracle of longevity," which has been brought about by innovation, invention and human imagination, has run out of gas. In other words, his argument presupposes that what has enabled longevity has run its course and we're done making progress.

One can't help but recall that monumental historical snafu in which Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under President McKinley, "Everything that can be invented has been invented," which was his rationale for his cost saving proposal to disband the U.S. Patent Office -- at the end of the 19th century! Buell was as wrong then as Emanuel is today. Or, to quote how the children might put it: "Zeke, You're so 20th Century."

Rather, there is every reason to be optimistic that innovation and human imagination will continue to enable us to live longer and healthier into the 21st century. A most recent example might be HIV/AIDs, which just 20 short years ago was thought to be a death sentence. Today, HIV/AIDs patients are living with their illness and managing longevity. So, rather than making the case for why one might want to die at 75, let's look at how we will continue to make progress. Indeed, rather than cling to 20th century notions of aging, let's open ourselves up to what the 21st century can bring.

Dr. Emanuel states that innovations in healthcare and medicine haven't slowed the aging process so much as the dyingprocess. The incredible three decades of life that have been added in the past century aren't really life, by this line of reasoning, but near-death years in which physical mobility, creativity and mental cognition decline.

Living to 75 is, in and of itself, a transformation that is the consequence of a number of factors that have emerged globally over the past century: innovations in medicine, improved and further-reaching healthcare, built on earlier improvements in basics such as sanitation. It is important to recall that, just a generation or two ago, these outcomes could not have been imagined. Equally, as one appreciates the ambition and attendant success of the human condition, particularly enabled by the system of democratic capitalism that has brought us here, we ought to assume that, in short order, 75 will also be an age in longer-living generations.

There is reason to be optimistic. Digital technologies are enabling prolonged independence. Pharmaceutical innovation is expanding the reach and affordability of once-unimaginable therapies. Breakthroughs in prevention are opening new doors for a longer, healthier life course. Older entrepreneurs are ushering in a "silver economy" - and they're succeeding far more often - if less spectacularly - than their twenty-something grandchildren in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, there is one point with which one soundly agrees with Emanuel and that is the impact of Alzheimer's as the health, social and fiscal nightmare of the 21st century -- if a cure is not found. Yet, it is on this more than any other challenge of our "aging society" that the innovation which has brought us to this point will continue in our 21st century to find the Alzheimer's solutions also.

Even on Alzheimer's, especially on Alzheimer's, it's worth recalling Moore's Law. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corporation, observed in a 1965 paper that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every two years. Every year or so, someone proclaims that Moore's Law has finally reached its end. Yet five decades later, Moore's Law prevails.

What's interesting -- and instructive -- about Moore's Law is that it's not an observation of physics; it's a management tool. Moore's Law only exists if Intel, and companies like it, decide they are going to build business to perpetuate it.

Similarly, if we want to be done innovating, we can be. 75 can be the right time to die. But if we want to continue to push innovation and blaze new trails, we can. We just have to remain optimistic and not fall into the fatalistic traps of Emanuel and those who repost him on Facebook. And have the system and policies in place to enable.

Rather than thinking of 75 as the time to die, let us continue to re-imagine 21st century life where 75 is a robust time of engagement and work. Perhaps for many even just the start of yet another phase of life.

Now is not the moment to choose an age as the one to die. But, a moment for progress. To retire the retirement age -- and the deterministic thinking it engenders, as evidenced by Dr. Emanuel -- and chart new courses in activity and productivity.

Let's recognize Dr. Emanuel's piece for what it is -- a sweeping declaration of 21st century impossibility framed by what was achieved in the 20th century. It's a static view of the human condition, which is his basic mistake. Rather, human imagination that will fuel invention and innovation can continue to propel us to a healthier and more active life as we live to be 100 as a matter of course. If one is to use numbers, there are three that ought to be in scope:

First, that 21st century life and work will require an overhaul of the concept of retirement and how we age. This itself will have impact on how healthy we might be since there is a relationship between activity and healthy aging. Neither 65 nor 75 ought to be a prescribed retirement age. Second, that we are living in an era of more old than young, which must push an entirely different perspective on how societies view public support in retirement or healthcare arenas. Third, that by 2020 there will be a billion of us over 60 on the planet. Let's start imagining how that demographic can drive economic growth, increase prosperity and contribute to social value -- not when they die.