The Sunday Review section of The New York Times (Dec. 1, 2013), carried two essays, unconnected to each other, that were good examples of the complexity of people’s calculations about their futures. Such calculations, I would argue, are survival strategies. We are a brainy species, and we require not only food and shelter but a place in a society and a reasonably contented mind.
“Millennial Searchers,” by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker, reports that today’s young adults are less interested in money and narcissistic pursuits than were young adults before the recession. Today’s millennials are instead looking towards careers that give them a sense of meaning. They want to connect “to something bigger than the self,” “to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.” Why the shift? “Chastened by these tough economic times, today’s young adults have been forced to rethink success so that it’s less about material prosperity and more about something else.” Not surprisingly, therefore, many seek jobs in government and health care, two of today’s career tracks with people-oriented and well-paying job opportunities.
So the new altruism grows not from some kind of new enlightenment but from adjusting to the realities of the job market. The young of any generation go through such adjustments. As the article points out, whether young people’s plans run in an altruistic or narcissistic direction correlates with whether the economy is weak or healthy. In both cases, they steer towards futures that they think will provide them with an income and a place in society where they can survive comfortably.
More surprising at first is the argument, in “On Dying After Your Time,” of an author who seemingly rejects survival as life’s first priority. Dan Callahan responds skeptically to the movement to slow aging and extend life. He asks, “Even if anti-aging research could give us radically longer lives someday, should we even be seeking them?” The 80-year-old writer argues that more longevity will raise health costs, that it will keep many young people out of jobs that the elderly will be hanging on to, and that life spans of 100 years will not necessarily be healthier, happier, or fuller than lives today.
I think “survival” is not as straightforward a notion as it appears to be. It is more than just an equation of a longer life equalling more successful survival. As Callahan reminds us, among social creatures, survival is never merely an individual matter. “Regardless of what science makes possible, or what individual people want, aging is a public issue with social consequences, and these must be thought through.”
Both articles are about the continuity of people’s lives, their practical needs and their relationship to others. Whether carefully or impulsively, fleetingly or painstakingly, people at every age ask, “What is the best direction I can take so I can sustain myself practically and with others in this society?” The question of how to survive is not only about the survival of our bodies. Because we are social animals with lively imaginations, it is also about the survival of our minds and our relationships as well.