Chapter 33: Benedict’s Last Lesson

What we talk about when we talk about old.

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned as Catholic leader at the age of 85, citing advanced age and flagging strength, he was the first pope to do so in 600 years and the first in history ever to retire. In an age of longevity, death need no longer be the likeliest way to withdraw from a major job; whereas, of the 265 popes who reigned since St. Peter (the first pope), 255 died in office. Of the 10 who “resigned,” four were banished or deposed, two were dismissed for corruption, one for incompetence, one for reasons unknown and one was both deposed and corrupt. (This was Benedict IX, who held the office three different times and who was both the youngest pope ever – 20 years old his first time around – and the first pope to ever sell the papacy to someone else.) Only two popes have ever resigned voluntarily: Gregory XII, who stepped aside in 1415 to end an impasse called the Western Schism; and Benedict XVI who, by stepping down for age-related reasons, now becomes, in a way, Benedict the Retiree.

But it isn’t just the pope’s decision to retire that’s revolutionary; it’s also the reaction of people I’ve spoken to about his decision. Most of that reaction has been approving. Eighty-five seems to strike people as an appropriate new age at which to pack in a high-pressure, high-maintenance job, even for someone who hasn’t been having health problems, as the Pope has. It is a kind of actuarial sleight-of-hand. Suddenly, the previous retirement benchmark of 65 seems somehow out-of-date, and the Pope’s new benchmark, 85, seems appropriate. What’s going on? In my last chapter, I talked about our need for new words and phrases to accurately describe today’s new experience of aging. What exactly are we talking about these days, then, when we talk about “old?”

A clue to the answer may be found in a paper that was released from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, just about the time the pope was stepping down. According to the study, life expectancy has increased further and faster in the 113 years since 1900 than it did in the 200,000 years of human history before 1900. In practical terms, that means that a 72-year-old man living in Japan or Sweden today has the same odds of dying as a prehistoric hunter-gatherer had at 30. In historical terms at least, 72 has become the new 30. In such a context, to get back to Benedict, 85 may well be a perfectly reasonable new age for the pope or the guy down the street to retire. But wait. The Max Planck study also found that human mortality is a freak among mammalian lifespan, far more “plastic and capable of manipulation than anyone has imagined.” This means that a functional lifespan of 125 or 150 in the near future is not unthinkable; in fact, many predict it. If so, maybe 85 is still too young to retire. Maybe the Pope jumped the gun. Either way, it’s obvious that the dizzying rise in average human lifespan has rendered the word “old” so subjective that it might be hard to ever get it back to where two separate people can agree on what it means.

Take what you might call The Age No One Wants to Be indicator; i.e., the age in a given culture and at a given time that is synonymous with the point at which old age itself is thought to begin. As late as the 1800s, the concept of The Age No One Wants to Be didn’t really exist, largely because Old Age as a mass experience didn’t yet exist. The average lifespan of a European in the year 1800 was about 40 (making people then closer in longevity to prehistoric hunter-gatherers than to us). There was really no old age demographic, so to speak; there were just people who were about to die and then did. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, when average lifespan had risen to just over 60 for men and 66 for women, that the dreaded Age No One Wanted to Be raised its head, and that age was 40. Forty was the line beyond which you started to become old, and no woman was supposed to wear a bikini. The most famous avatar of 40 as the point of no return was Jack Benny, the iconic comedian who, when he turned 54 in 1948, decided that he was really 39 and would remain so forever. (This is the same Jack Benny who once said: “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”) The maxim “Life begins at 40” first appeared as the title of a bestselling self-help book by American psychologist Walter Pitkin in 1932, a classic overcompensation to the widely held suspicion that the opposite was true. By the 1970s, 50 had started to replace 40 as the line between vigour and age. Today, we’re testing other old-age Rubicons: the Pope’s 85 or a British government survey conducted in January of this year which found that Britons now believe the moment when old age is reached is “precisely 59 years, two months and two weeks.”1 In other words, 60 has replaced 40 as the crossing over into “old” age line, at the same time that our actual “death” line, i.e., our average lifespan, has moved to 78-plus for men and 84 for women.

Complicating what “old” means today even more is how much variance you get when you break the adult demographic into sub-groups. I’ve referred before to the fact that many people over 50 report feeling at least 10 years younger than their actual age. Well, it also turns out that a substantial percentage of 65- to 74-year-olds feel 15 years younger than their age; and many 75-year-olds feel 20 years younger.2

This shows that even though the average 70-year-old is considered 10 years past the “old-age” line, he or she in their own mind actually thinks they’ve got many years to go to reach “old.” Meanwhile, people who live in public housing report that old age starts five years earlier than people who own their own homes; and people who are unemployed say old age begins up to nine years earlier than those who have full-time jobs.3 So, if old is no longer related to even a loosely accepted number and, as the New York Times noted in 1991, “All our age benchmarks, which used to seem solid as rocks, have turned into shifting sands,” what do we actually mean these days when we call someone “old?” Most of the time, it would appear the word is used as an all-purpose synonym for physical conditions like infirmity or debility or personality traits like obsolescence or obstinacy; thereby reinforcing the inherent negativity of the word.

Before the conclave that just produced Pope Francis I, in all the frenzied speculation about who might be crowned, not one commentator mentioned the 76-year-old cardinal from Buenos Aires because fashion had it that Bergoglio was too old. He was excluded on grounds of age alone. But the cardinals did not agree, and so he was elected.

Now, logic might tell you that a major reason why no popes retired before Benedict XVI was that they didn’t live long enough. But logic would be wrong. Of the 10 longest-lived popes in history, six were born in the 1600s or earlier. In an age when average longevity ranged from 35 to 40, these pontiffs lived to an average age of 85. If life for the vast majority of people at the time was, as their contemporary Thomas Hobbes wrote, “nasty, brutish and short,” for the popes it was anything but. In fact, these popes lived on average longer than the popes who immediately preceded Benedict XVI during the 20th century. They were outliers of the most spectacular sort; for a present-day pope to equal the proportional age advantage they enjoyed over their non-papal peers in their time, he would have to live to be 160.4

What was their secret? You might suggest it was their superior wealth and resulting nutrition and care and, undoubtedly, those were factors – but they accomplished the feat without modern medicine, particularly antibiotics, which according to the Max Planck Institute study, have been largely responsible for our own “miraculous” rise in longevity. You could say that they were close to God, but so, arguably, were the modern popes, but they’ve been treading water lifespan-wise. You could raise the possibility that they were more likely to have been sexually active than their successors (my second-favourite theory) but, alas, abstinence for priests was formally adopted by the church 100 years before the earliest of them was born, even though the jury is still out as to whether or not they practised it. But my favourite theory, the one that comes intuitively to me, is the explanation from Engagement. The past popes were not simply men of God but men of the world. Their lives were as political and commercial as they were ecclesiastical. They hustled and bought and sold and made deals; they were fired and rehired; they endured personal scandals that would have made a tabloid-writer blanch. In short, they were fully engaged, very busy people, too busy probably to wonder what being old was or whether they had crossed the dreaded line into its clutches.
I suggest that we all do the same.

1.Survey, Department for Works and Pensions, British Government, 2013

2.Pew Research Center study, 2009, Paul Taylor, executive vice-president and principal author of the survey in question

3.Survey, Department for Works and Pensions, British Government, 2012


Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.