The Changing Definition of a ‘Full Life’

  • 2016-03-08
  • The Atlantic

There are two types of death: the kind that comes too soon, and the kind that, though lamentable, at least feels age-appropriate. When someone young passes away, the blow is made worse by all the might-have-beens—what the deceased could have done, seen, and accomplished if only given more time. When the very old die, however, the loss—while still terrible for their loved ones—doesn’t come with that same sense of unfulfilled potential. "It was his time" is the phrase that so often applies, or, "She lived a full life."

But the definition of “a full life” is expanding, and the line dividing the two types of death is retreating. Not too long ago, a person who lived until age 70 was considered to have had a good, long run. Newspapers from the early-to-mid 20th century typically treated such deaths as wholly unexceptional. The 1910 Los Angeles Herald, for example, reported that the stage actor Louis James had “died recently at the ripe old age of 68 years.” In 1899, the Little Falls Herald noted that a woman named Mary Honohan, of Brainerd, Minnesota, “died of old age at the hospital Friday, aged 70.” A reporter at the Corpus Christi Times wrote of a Soviet diplomat in 1954: “The amazing thing about Andrei Yanuarevitch Vishinsky is that he lived so long and died a natural death at the ripe old age of 70.”

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when 70 stopped being an acceptable age for a lifetime to end. Certainly, some of it had to do with gradually lengthening life expectancies. In 1900, the average 50-year-old could expect to make it to 71; today, he or she will live more than a decade longer than that. But as the definition of a long life changes, so do ideas about what people can achieve in the years once written off as “old age.” Consider the recent death of David Bowie at 69: Fans mourned the loss of the person, but also the loss of his future output.

At other times in history, placing such weight on the creative potential of a 69-year-old would have seemed the height of folly. In 1905, for instance, Sigmund Freud wrote that those “near or over the age of 50 … are no longer educable." (He was 49 at the time.) In 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in one of his Fireside Chats that U.S. Supreme Court justices older than 70 represented a “hardening of the judicial arteries.”