How Problematic Is This Atlantic Cover Story? Let Me Count the Ways

The cover of the October 2014 Atlantic magazine features a white-bearded skateboarder careening crazily above the title of an article that encapsulates American ambivalence about longevity, Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” I wrote a letter to the editor, calling out the unacknowledged ageism that saturates the issue.

Would the Atlantic publish a cover story about changing gender roles without mentioning sexism? I asked. Or analyze race relations without foregrounding racism? Yet in its pages, ageism goes unmentioned—not to mention, unexamined. For example:

• Emanuel’s statement that “our older years are not of high quality.” Study after study shows people to be happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. 

• The presumption that lives that narrow over time are not worth living. The story of Emanuel’s own father belies it.

• The zero-sum reasoning that “stretching out old age” comes at the expense of “saving more young people.” This canes-vs-cradles argument has been debunked by countless gerontologists.

• The premise that age turns people into useless burdens. Far more resources, material and otherwise, have always flowed from older generations to younger ones.

I mailed the letter but I have more to say on the subject. I’m not going to bother with Emanuel’s absurd presumption that he knows how he’ll feel decades from now, and I assume he was reaching for a sensational headline. Emanuel has clearly reflected on death and dying, as befits a bioethicist, and his questions about unnecessary medical tests and interventions down the line make sense. Narcissism and internalized ageism render the rest of the article offensive enough to border on grotesque.

Living too long, writes Emanuel, “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

What hubris to imagine that we can control the ways in which we’ll be remembered! And what foolishness to conceive of aging as a simplistic continuum along which younger people come off, well, just better. 

This makes a certain sense if you measure productivity the way Emanuel does: by writing symphonies or winning Nobel prizes, or running cities like his brother, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, or running Hollywood talent agencies like his equally overachieving brother, Ari. These standards leave behind not just their father, a physician who no longer teaches or makes hospital rounds—yet, mystifyingly to his son, “said he was happy”—but almost everyone on the planet. It is regrettably American to value doing over being, an ethos that Ezekiel Emanuel epitomizes and that serves us poorly in late life. No wonder he views the prospect with such dread and contempt. 

Emanuel's case for dying at 75 rests on his view that disability renders life not worth living. An awful lot of people living with disabilities would vehemently disagree, and they ought to know. Quality of life is, of course, subjective, as this bioethicist acknowledges, saying he would support the choice of people who want to live as long as possible. Phew—hold the eugenics! Emanuel may indeed keep the ability to scale Kilimanjaro as his benchmark. My guess is that like the vast majority of older Americans, he’ll find plenty of pleasures in life writ smaller—unless he’s still measuring his kingdom by the standards of his overachieving family.

What it means to live a long life turns less on medical science, the subject of a companion article by contributing editor Greg Easterbook, than on society. It’s not having a vagina that makes life harder for women, it’s sexism. It’s racism, not having dark skin, that oppresses people of color. It’s not the passage of time that makes aging in America so much harder than it has to be—it’s ageism. It is high time to stop giving this form of discrimination a pass. 

Condensed and edited for this website