Act your age? This woman says you don't have to

Older people are defying the ageing process. Writer Catherine Mayer calls it 'amortality'


By John Nathan, June 24, 2011
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Catherine Mayer believes that Judaism's focus on the here and now makes Jews particularly prone to amortality

Catherine Mayer believes that Judaism's focus on the here and now makes Jews particularly prone to amortality

We do not grow older the way we used to. Written here, this simple observation seems no more interesting than all the other things that we do not do the way we used to - travel, shop, book restaurants, read, or even give birth…

But as explained by Time magazine journalist Catherine Mayer in her new book, the observation becomes increasingly profound. And so new was the phenomenon when Mayer noticed it, she had to make up a word for it - "amortality".

It is a word which serves as the title of the book and was born when fellow Time journalist and novelist Lev Grosssman asked Mayer to contribute to an annual zeitgeist piece on modern trends. Grossman was looking for 10 ideas that are changing the world. "I suggested that people don't grow old the way they used to," says Mayer, "and Lev said: 'Is there a name for this?' and the word just came right into my head."

Appropriately enough, we are talking about the high-concept idea in Time's 10th-floor offices. London's horizon is speared by the city's newest, spikiest skyscrapers. It is airier here than in Mayer's nearby windowless office, where she works as the magazine's London bureau chief. In the corner lies a dusty armour-plated flak jacket that Mayer last used while reporting from Iraq.

"I hadn't consciously thought about it but when I started to jot down ideas I realised that I had a very cogent set of observations that added up to this whole," she says.

Key among these observations are that people are living longer; that they are defined less by how old they are than by what they do; that they go through life ignoring the roles that have traditionally been associated with their age, and that they keep the sense of mortality at bay by working hard.

I had a very cogent set of observations that added up to this whole

Not having children can be a sign. If you are an amortal, life is likely to be defined by your work and parenthood might be either postponed or cancelled. In other words, you might be Simon Cowell, one of the many famous interviewees in Mayer's book.

But the central point is that age is not the defining thing that decides how you live your life. Oh, and it turns out that if you are an amortal, there is a fair chance you are Jewish.

"I didn't cotton on to this until half way through the research," says Mayer who, because her maternal grandmother Ruth was a gentile, describes herself as "three-quarters Jewish".

The Mayers are a family of "Jewish-ish" (to use Jonathan Miller's description of himself) high achievers. Mayer was born in Chicago in 1961, but educated in the UK. Her father is David Mayer, an emeritus professor of drama history, her sisters are TV writer Lise (Angus Deayton's partner) and Cassie, a theatrical agent, and her mother Anne is a prominent theatre publicist who amortally worked for the Royal Court Theatre until it was discovered that her looks belied her age which was well past the retirement deadline. Now she amortally works for herself.

So it turns out that when amortals do have children, rather like Judaism amortality gets passed down the generations like a compulsory heirloom. But even this does not account for the fact that amortality seems to attract Jews.

There are "actual reasons", says Mayer, for why there are proportionally more Jewish amortals than in the wider community. "Judaism is both a culture and a religion, everyone knows that," she explains. "But even in the purely religious part, there is something that focuses on the here and now way more than, say, Christianity, which is based on the idea of delayed gratification and denial."

In other words, if you cannot rely on an afterlife, you might as well make the most of this one.

In Mayer's wide-ranging and entertaining book the evidence for the existence of amortality comes in the form of conversations with the well-connected author's amortal friends, such as Bob Geldof and Lynne Franks; with Florida retirees, and with improbably youthful Las Vegas-based fiftysomething anti-ageing pioneers, among others.

And she also talked to the Archbishop of Canterbury who has no fear of the thing that amortals fear most - death.

In the book Mayer also reluctantly addresses her decision not to have children. (She is married to Andy Gill, the founding guitarist of post-punk band Gang of Four.) "I didn't particularly want to write about that," she admits. "But I thought if I am writing about a trend and I don't acknowledge that I am part of it, it looks like I'm not being honest."

She says her objective was never to promote a lifestyle. The goal was to reveal how vast swathes of humanity are increasingly living and ageing. And the book backs up her point. It reveals the pluses and the minuses of amortality. One of the pluses is that amortality might banish ageism. One of the minuses is that it is the logical result of a baby-boomer individualism that puts number one first. It is a mind-set that thinks little about its effects on others, but a lot about personal achievement, which can, of course, have benefits for society.

Mayer says writing the book was an example of her own "displacement therapy" which not only had the advantage of distracting her from the amortal's terror of death, but has had the benefit of leaving a legacy. "I've got Google set to tell me when the word 'amortality' is being used. And I got one about a professor who gave an address about amortality. There was no reference to me, or the book. So I did a Facebook update that said: 'So long little word, I invented you and now you're off into the big wide world'."

'Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly' is published by Ebury at £12.99

    Last updated: 11:43am, June 27 2011