Won’t somebody please think of the children?
It makes sense to ask what living longer (especially with extended healthspans) might do to older folks. In our elongated golden years, marriage could look different. We might get bored. We might tyrannize social and political institutions, cackling gleefully as bizarro medicines confine our deaths to some vanishing point on the far horizon.
But what is the future of childhood in a world where time just keeps unspooling? For something we’re so obsessed with, youth remains a slippery idea in American life—a way of describing everything from chronological age to vibrancy to stupidity/innocence. Will those definitions play out differently when people are living to 150?
Ask a doctor or a developmental psychologist about longevity’s effect on kids, and you might get a boring answer. After all, if one defines childhood as a set of biological milestones—like language acquisition or learning to crawl—a longer life expectancy wouldn’t make much of a difference in how those landmarks are distributed. Little Timmy will not acquire the motor coordination necessary to throw a ball any earlier or later because he is predicted to see his 90th birthday—or his 140th. (Childhood understood strictly as the biological period between infancy and puberty has shrunk slightly: The average age of first menarche for girls fell from nearly 17 to 12.6 in the past 100 years, according to a 2007 study, and American boys are reaching sexual maturity about two years earlier than they used to. But for the current crop of pubescent fifth-graders, we can thank—or blame—better nutrition and exposure to environmental hormones, not any kind of longevity-related recalibration in our soon-to-be immortal cells.)
Yet our protracted lifespans have already had a huge—and somewhat tautological—effect on childhood: It’s much easier than it used to be to get out of those years alive. As Laura Helmuth noted in September, most deaths up until the 20th century occurred in children and infants. Between one-quarter and half of babies and toddlers died, compared with approximately 0.6 percent in the United States today. The childproofing of childhood—which includes advances like vaccinations, neonatal medicine, and improved care and nutrition—has improved kids’ odds enormously, allowing society to further humanize and even exalt the young.
To track that process (from kid indifference to kid veneration) is to discover that our salad days have a long and surprisingly contentious history. In his 1960 book Centuries of Childhood, the French scholar Phillipe Aries famously suggested that, for medieval society, “the idea of childhood did not exist.” Aries pointed to early modern portraits in which children were depicted as miniature adults; to the practice of breezily fostering 8-year-olds in other peoples’ homes; to the classrooms in which young people recited their lessons alongside farmhands twice or three times their age. Because kids so rarely survived their early years, he argued, they were seen as anonymous, a bit dispensable, fine to mingle among adults or exhaust their bodies with manual labor. Sexually, they were perceived as neither especially pure nor achingly corruptible: “The idea did not yet exist that references to sexual matters … could soil childish innocence … [as] nobody thought this innocence really existed," Aries wrote.
His book came under fire for cherry-picking evidence and misconstruing the conventions of medieval art. But even if you don’t fully buy his thesis—which scholars have started to view more sympathetically in recent years—there’s no question that a 6-year-old in the Middle Ages inspired wildly different expectations than does the kid right now licking the railing outside your apartment. Most experts date the modern idea of childhood to the Victorian era, when the consecration of the nuclear family obliged parents to start sheltering young people from the vagaries of life (or at least to talk about doing so). This shift wasn’t immediate: It kicked off in 17th-century Europe, as contraception and romantic love began to flourish, birthrates fell, and couples were able to invest more time and resources in each child. The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke helped it along with his tabula rasa theory, which celebrated the radical innocence of infancy and emphasized that kids needed education to become right-thinking adults. A half-century or so later, Romantics picked up their quills and set the cult of childhood in full swing—at least on paper. In his 1789 Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake juxtaposed the pure and playful world of infancy with a fallen, soot-stained adulthood. Wordsworth idealized newborns, who he said entered life “trailing clouds of glory” and appareling all they saw in “celestial light.” Rousseau cooed over the native goodness of the babe, urging readers to “hold childhood in reverence.” (He also, um, committed his kids to an orphanage soon after they were born.)
The social conditions of the time didn’t line up with all the tender rhetoric. Exploitative child labor extended well past the Factory Act of 1833, which capped the workday at nine hours for English children under 14. But the second half of the 19th century also saw a flowering of literature aimed toward kids (think Treasure Island and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and school reforms, including the beginnings of compulsory education. Across the Atlantic, the idea of the sacred, delicate young person was spreading from the upper to the lower classes. Viviana Zelizer provides a great case study in her book Pricing the Priceless Child. When children from poor New York City households in the mid-1800s were run over in the street, she writes, their families generally received compensation for lost wages. But as the decades passed, parents began to demand higher and higher damages. The lives of their children, they insisted, could not be coldly assigned an economic value; they were priceless, the losses inestimable. From here it is not hard to imagine how America evolved its hypervigilant parenting culture, replete with Mozart effect evangelism and Moby-Dick board books.
So what will it mean for kids when adults are living to 120 and beyond? Besides the likelihood that they will have lots of potential caretakers (or at least endure a borderline inhumane number of cheek pinches at Thanksgiving), they may be seen as even more rare and precious. Society will skew older. The years before puberty will represent an ever-smaller proportion of the overall lifespan. We can speculate that, for a certain income bracket, the cult of childhood will become yet cultier, the cocoons at once softer and more anxiously woven. (Are you 12, well-off, and reading this? Stop. You should be strategizing about how to get your baby—you know, the one you’ll have 20 years down the road—into preschool.)
Daniel Hart, the director of the Institute for Effective Education at Rutgers University, has a grimmer take on what longevity might do to young people. He allows that if the elderly need support, then perhaps children will be seen as valuable—“future fuel for the economy.” But if older generations stay fit, sharp, and employed, he says, “youth would be increasingly framed as immature, unreliable and problematic.” Would we invest more resources in such a demographic? Hart notes that while poverty rates for the elderly have gone down over the past 30 years, poverty rates for children have actually increased. In 2011, Americans aged 65 to 75 owned the most wealth and assets of any age group. If we start to live healthfully into our hundreds, presumably the silver-haired share of the national kitty pool will keep growing.
Furthermore, says Hart, research suggests that as the racial and ethnic background of kids diverges from that of older adults—a phenomenon that is unfolding as society sees a boom in black and Hispanic young people—hoarier generations will spend less on education and related social issues. Finally, a recent World Values Survey found that adults are increasingly looking past children for fulfillment, to individualistic goods like self-expression and professional success. In other words, future kids: You may be on your own.
But who even counts (or will count) as a “kid”? And what happens to the limbo period between childhood and adulthood, dependence and autonomy, when time approaches the status of a renewable resource? “There’s always been a tension in American history between absolute chronological age and maturation,” says Susan A. Miller, a professor of childhood studies at Rutgers. “Age has historically been far less relevant than what someone is able to accomplish.” In the 18th century, she continues, a boy who developed quickly, growing strong and tall, was considered ready for a man’s work. A century later, before industrialization took hold, it was not uncommon for 17-year-olds to graduate from Harvard, to go west, to edit city newspapers. Now, that haziness around age versus competence seems to be going in the other direction. Modern young people are testing the limits not of how swiftly they can plunge into adulthood, but of how long they can delay it.
We are positioning the traditional signposts of maturity in different spots along the life journey. We get married later (or not at all). We wait to have children. We live with our parents for longer and spend more time in school. Citing evidence that brain and hormonal development continues well into peoples’ 20s, child psychologists in the United Kingdom recently moved their official cutoff point for adolescence from 18 to 25. So many think pieces and novels and TV shows on “emerging adulthood” have arisen that it would take multiple adulthoods (emerged or otherwise) to consume them all.
According to conventional wisdom, this has nothing to do with lifespan. It means we aren’t giving young people the opportunity to grow up. As countless writers have pointed out, today’s uncertain economy and credentialing arms race make entering the job market unprecedentedly difficult. People need more education to get the positions they want, which can lead them to rely on their parents. Demanding expectations at work can quash dreams of a relationship or a family. The costs of buying a house, of childrearing, are soaring.
But maybe—just maybe—longevity has bequeathed us a bit more flexibility. We’ve got more time to establish ourselves in our careers, to return to school, to meet the right person. Some parents and grandparents might be around longer to support their kids. If youth is a state of exploration and play, perhaps improved life expectancies will allow us to stretch it out past its previous limits. Seventy could be the new 45, 50 the new 21. In the 16th century, Erasmus defined a “prodigy” as “an old head on young shoulders.” A young head on old shoulders, though? What if that’s just 22nd-century normal?