WE’VE NEVER BEEN SO OLD. There were 95,000 centenarians in 1990 and more than 450,000 in 2015, according to estimates from the United Nations. Global life expectancy doubled from 1920 to 2020; the pandemic saw a dip that was horrifying but comparatively minor in the scope of a century’s time. Simultaneously, there have never been so many of us of so many ages (nearly a third of the eight billion alive today are under eighteen), and so there is an unprecedented number of generations now existing, which is to say aging at the same time.
“Life Alert” considers getting older and its consequences, for the aged and youthful alike. Chris Lehmann surveys the sclerotic class of gerontocrats from Biden and Trump to McConnell and Pelosi, tracing the question of how old is too old to govern back to the 1984 Reagan-Mondale debate, which inaugurated the concern in American public life. To be elderly is not necessarily to be empowered in this country, however, especially for those who’ve experienced lifelong bigotry: Ann Neumann details the discrimination faced by LGBTQ elders from a nursing home industry already struggling to care for its aging clientele, while Jeff Weinstein chronicles how hard it is for queer seniors to get adequate health care from Medicare when no one in the U.S. government seems to believe anyone over sixty-five fucks.
Elsewhere in the issue, contributors consider how we navigate a changing world that remains hostile to its inhabitants. Aaron Gell places the RICO charges against the activists militating against Cop City within a long history of state persecution of dissidents in the American South, the recent charges echoing the 1930s prosecution of Black communist agitator Angelo Herndon. Britt H. Young considers the brand-new world of silicone penises and the prosthetic euphoria available to all at your local sex shop. And Adrian Nathan West examines the loosening taboos around steroids, making the case that it’s a laudable sea change for a particularly masculine kind of gender affirmation—with some qualifications, given the American appetite for excess.
No one has, to my knowledge, used artificial intelligence to resurrect the likes of the bodybuilding YouTube greats Rich Piana or Joesthetics, gone at the tender ages of forty-six and thirty; one likely could, however, with the gimmicky tools scrutinized by Tamara Kneese in her survey of transhumanist technologists’ attempts to resuscitate the dead with data. A more deliberate approach, without the use of Amazon’s Alexa, might be that of Cecil Brown, the eighty-year-old veteran of the Black avant-garde attempting to digitally revive, as Matt Sandler writes, the enslaved antebellum poet George Moses Horton.
Amid all this not-quite-dying and almost-living, how fare the youth? Some are funneled into Reaganite financial literacy programs where they play at being fifth-grade adults, e.g., work to pay off an imaginary bank loan and pretend to have carpal tunnel syndrome, as Anya Ventura reports from the immersive learning experience that is BizTown. Others might have the privilege of learning from Austin McCoy, who writes of his rap-soundtracked political education in the 1990s and his current efforts teaching university students the history of hip-hop. It’s an effort toward a tradition—the best we can do in our short time here, our lengthened dotages still falling short of the lifespan of, say, Niagara Falls, as Chris Maggio shows in his photo essay on the natural wonder and its tourist economy.