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The Armchair Futurist

The Long Thanatopsis

Over the next few decades, baby boomers will reinvent how America dies. That gives Generation X one last thing to roll its eyes about, as it follows a step behind.

Colin Chillag, Grandma-Grandpa, 2012. Courtesy the artist and 101/Exhibit.

In 30 years, the assisted suicides of people won’t be met by the furor that followed the death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who ended her own life with a fatal dose of barbiturates on Nov. 1.

In 30 years, the media won’t bother with stories like Gillian Bennett, an 85-year-old Canadian woman who took her own life in August using alcohol and barbiturates because she had decided not to live any longer with dementia. Upon her death, a website, deadatnoon.com, went live with an essay justifying her choice and arguing for assisted suicide. In 30 years, an explanatory website will be as unnecessary as a newspaper story, because this form of dying will be just another one of the ways that we die.

This shift will be part of the lasting legacy of the 76 million baby boomers who make up about 25 percent of the American population and who will be aging and dying in the next 20 years. A century from now, the historians of the future will not credit them as much for their boisterous 1960s counterculture as for the gray twinkle and fade in the early 21st century that forever altered the way America dies.

For a middle-aged Gen X-er like me to play in the thanatopsis sandbox like this is bittersweet. (“Thanatopsis” is a meditation on death, from William Cullen Bryant’s 1817 poem.) Of course, it’s untoward to point to anyone’s death, no matter how inescapable it is. The main source of the bitterness, though, is acknowledging that the cultural hegemony of the baby boomers will always overshadow me. Better than I know the contours of my historical experience, I know theirs: born into postwar prosperity, the hedonism and idealism, its psychological aftermath, and the nostalgias (The Big Chill, A Prairie Home Companion). I envied their generational mindset, the self-identity of a group that was formed in the same historical crucible, so as a senior in college in 1989, I pitched an article on “my generation” to a national magazine. Very kindly but firmly the editor, a baby boomer, refused it on the grounds that generational forms of thinking were now outré, even as he admitted getting his start in journalism by publishing a “my generation” piece in 1974. This epitomizes to me how sorry a creature the Gen X-er could be: weaned on someone else’s cultural themes, always too late to the party. (Fortunately Richard Linklater and Douglas Coupland were more persistent than I was.)

We will be able to take, and perhaps self-administer, human growth hormone. Medical marijuana will be federally recognized.

All this is blunted by knowing that when (and, let’s be honest, if) I become an elderly Gen X-er, many of the sharp edges of old age will have been blasted smooth by the massive demographic cohort that has preceded me. That’s the sweet part of the bittersweetness.

It’s impossible for me to predict everything that will occur, but it seems clear that every kitchen gadget will be available in ergonomic designs for weaker, arthritic hands. Every building will have been fitted with hearing loops in each room, so my hearing aids will work better. The bathrooms will all be ADA-compliant, fitted with wide doors and handles, and all street crossings will have curb cuts. No homes, offices, or shops will have raised thresholds at doorways, so my robot health aides will able to glide over them, along with my solar-powered wheelchair. If I can afford it, my transitional housing will be designed to maximize my psychological and emotional wellbeing. The clinics, rehab centers, hospitals, and nursing homes will seem like brisk hotels, perhaps even like resorts, not like institutions. Safe, effective, and cheap therapies and drugs to improve the workings of my brain and body will be easily accessible and widely accepted. We will be able to take, and perhaps self-administer, human growth hormone. Medical marijuana will be federally recognized.

By then, the good death will be just another lifestyle choice. Philosophers of inequality will argue that dying well should not be enjoyed only by the upper income tiers, and the policy question of the day will be whether or not dying well is a public good. Should prisoners receive funding from the state in order to pursue dying with dignity? Will people living in homeless shelters be able to receive the psychiatric clearance that’s needed for state-sanctioned death? State laws about burials and funerals will also change, such as the requirement (in some states) that only licensed, registered funeral directors may make arrangements and preparations for burial or cremation; embalming bodies will become increasingly rare, and funerary practices with low environmental impact, such as “green cremation,” will be niche at first, even luxury, then will become more widely available. Already there are do-it-yourself funerary books, magazines, and night courses. Soon there will be coffee shop meet-ups and death parties. (Things are moving so fast that I discover this already exists, too.)

When I’m old, I won’t have to endure advertising or marketing that depicts solely the joys of youth, because the next 30 years of American culture will erode our obsession with it. The baby boomers won’t stand for it because they can celebrate only themselves and their own experiences. Instead, books, movies, and computer games will embed touchstone narratives about aging, end-of-life issues, and death into American popular culture. Forget only-the-good-die-young narratives like The Fault in Our Stars; we’ll have only-the-good-die-at-65 weepies. Imagine Love Story amalgamated with On Golden Pond. Imagine Her 3, in which the operating system of an old woman’s home mourns her death. Previously unimaginable genres, like hospice sitcoms and caretaker talent shows, will emerge. Tossed onto the trash heap of character tropes will be the heroic fresh-faced doctors and nurses who keep people alive. Instead, look for novels about real estate agents trying to find buyers for all the empty houses. We’ll be asked to watch comic movies about the grief of caregiving robots. This generation’s On the Road will place the sexy charismatic con artist in an assisted living facility and tell the story through the verbal patterns of dementia and aphasia instead of bebop.

I won’t have to endure advertising that depicts solely the joys of youth—the next 30 years of American culture will erode our obsession with it.

So many Gen X-ers’ kids will have had caretaking jobs in high school that college application essays about lessons learned while caring for sick and elderly people who are not family members will become a subgenre. When they arrive at college, they’ll be able to teach the courses on death and dying. By the time they are 21 they will have seen more death and dying, up close, than any Americans since the Civil War.

This is what happens when 25 percent of the population dies, and does it over decades, not in a brief span of time that overflows hospitals and morgues. Rather, people will go slowly enough for society to deliberate, plan, readjust, reallocate; absorbing all this mortality will happen at a human pace, and the changes, when they come, will stick. Already you can see the media makes its slow shift to geriatric issues. How do doctors die? Do brain-training games really work?

The sorts of meaning that Americans will attach to aging and death will become richer, more public, and more prevalent among people of all ages. Medical schools will have taught doctors how to help people die under their own control, as will nursing programs; the medical professions will orient around a sensitivity to preventing suffering. Poets, priests, and shamans will supply the words, the imagery, and the ritual. Birth doulas will be joined by—and perhaps even become—death doulas. As a culture and a society, we will have learned how to practice the art and craft of dying together. Everyone will be familiar with the anthropology of death and dying. Our Deaths, Ourselves will be a bestseller. As an increasingly secular culture takes over the meaning of death and dying, the relevance of divine will to our organisms will seem increasingly quaint, and more states will pass laws facilitating assisted suicide.

When it comes time for me to go, I’ll be able to decide when this will occur, if I so desire. Like Gillian Bennett, I’ll be able to do so at home—the movement to enable “aging in place” will be inevitably followed by one to enable “dying in place.” The drugs, the procedures, the discussions with professionals and family: There will be protocols for all of them. Unlike Gillian Bennett’s case, the police won’t have to be called, and my survivors won’t be interrogated, even politely, by officers of anything. Any thoughts I have about the end will be private, between me and my loved ones. The government won’t be there. Neither will anyone else’s religion. Just like everyone else, I will be able to simply die. A Gen X-er to the end, I’ll smirk about baby boomers’ influence, and then I’ll be too dead to care.

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard