Never Say Die is hardly an exhaustive treatment of its crucial subject. Jacoby devotes two of her closing chapters to the debates over such topics as assisted suicide and the morality of significant life extension—subjects that only touch tangentially on the urgent political and economic questions at the heart of her book. (Indeed, toward the end of the ethics-of-longevity section, she wanders into a reverie about the post-human future, only to concede that “whether humanity might one day evolve into or be forcefully replaced by another species does not seem relevant to the issue of whether it is a good idea to work on extending the human life span.” You don’t say.)

But she is courageously right to insist that the reckonings ahead for aging Americans portend “nothing less than a radical rethinking of the cherished American myth that individuals should be capable of providing for their economic independence throughout their lives.” Boomers, she suggests, will be obliged to shuck off their customary self-infatuation in order to “plan in a more systematic way for old age even as—also paradoxically—they abandon delusions about their capacity to exercise complete control over the circumstance of their final years.”

In Jacoby’s view, this new intergenerational social contract will depend absolutely on the so-called wellderly: “If boomers do not lead the way, no one will.” As I write this, however, older voters disproportionately turned out to support the Tea Party, whose agenda has failed to produce the barest specifics for a program of spending cuts, hewing instead to a spasmodic rejection of government itself. In other words, there seems to be little basis in our political culture to support Jacoby’s scenario.

Still, one can hope that her impassioned, closely argued tract gains a serious hearing among her fellow boomers. Without such counsel, they—and a good deal of the economic order that has long catered to them—will go gently into that good night, in the firm belief that it is forever high noon. 

 

Chris Lehmann is an editor for Yahoo News, co-editor of BookForum, and a columnist for The Awl. He is also the author of Rich People Things.