‘Kodokushi’, meaning ‘lonely death’ in Japanese, is the phenomenon of elderly people dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a relatively long time. The remains are usually discovered after some time due to the putrid smell of decomposition or administrative officers finally checking up on them for overdue bills. Such is the fate of the greying population in Japan, and it is far from being an isolated case with similar incidents being reported in Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. The morbidity and grim nature of this sad reality forces us to reconsider the goal of increasing life expectancy, which is a highly sought after goal across nations both developed and developing. While there are certainly personal and economic benefits to having the elderly around for longer, there are also costs in those very aspects as well. Philosophically, an endless life may also render life meaningless. Altogether, these may make the goal of increasing life expectancy less desirable and pushes us to ponder if a short but meaningful life may be better.
In an economic sense, many countries chase after higher life expectancy as a cumulative indicator of societal welfare. Higher life expectancy usually correlates with better healthcare and has even been associated with the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country in various studies. The Preston Curve relates life expectancy to per capita income, providing the link between the two. Sitting atop the rankings is Hong Kong with a life expectancy of 84.2 years as of 2016. The special autonomous region also prides itself with one of the highest GDP per capita in Asia, being one of the four Asian tigers to undergo rapid industrialization and economic growth from the 1950s to 1990s. Healthcare in Hong Kong is also known to be one of the most efficient with 11 private and 42 public hospitals to serve a population of just over 7 million. On the other hand, Sierra Leone, the West African nation, has one of the world’s lowest life expectancies of a mere 51.8 years as of 2016. Its GDP per capita is barely 500 USD, with rampant poverty, lack of access to clean water and poor sanitation. It was dubbed ‘one of the worst places on Earth to access healthcare’, with infant and maternal mortality rates being one of the highest in the world. As such, it is no wonder that countries would strive for higher life expectancy as the indicator represents the overall welfare of citizens in terms of material and non-material standards of living.
While higher life expectancy may prove that social welfare is improving, it is also the cause of the strain on the government’s healthcare infrastructure, putting additional financial burden on both the state and the workforce. With an ageing population, more public healthcare services would have to be provided in terms of hospitals, doctors and medical equipment. This will cause the government’s budget to rise in order to provide the aforementioned services, which will lead to a combination of a national deficit and increased taxes on the working population. This problem has already begun to crop up in countries like Singapore, Japan and Australia who sit on top of the life expectancy rankings. Singapore is starting to feel the strain, with 4.7 citizens of working age for every 1 older adult in a study by population.sg in 2016. This figure is projected to drop to 2.3 by 2030, indicating that the responsibility of caring for a larger ageing population will fall on the shoulders of a much smaller younger workforce. In addition to labour shortages, the ageing population brings with them increased healthcare costs from health screenings, treatments, hospitalisation and medicine. The Singapore government has also recently unveiled the Merdeka Generation Package in the 2019 Budget, aimed at citizens born in the 1950s, to provide them with better peace of mind over future healthcare costs. This comes after the Community Health Assistance Scheme (CHAS) and Pioneer Generation Package were rolled out just a few years ago. These packages and schemes may seem beneficial for society, providing financial support to the aged, yet it will put a disproportionate amount of stress on the republic’s finances. A budget deficit of $3.4 billion is predicted for the financial year of 2019 with the total healthcare spending amounting to $11.7 billion. This is in contrast to the $4 billion allocated for healthcare in 2010, over the span of less than a decade this figure has nearly tripled. It is evident that longer life expectancy will put a strain on the government’s public health systems and national finances, causing it to be less than desirable.
On a personal level, however, a longer life gives people more time to experience the joys of life, like pursuing a lifelong passion or spending time with friends and family. With today’s society being so fast-paced, and with studies and work occupying a large proportion of our time before retirement, a longer life gives us the time to chase after the things that truly matter in life, be it fulfilment from pursuing one’s passions or quality time with loved ones. This is grounded on the premise that the meaning of life is derived from diverse experiences and memories. With a longer runway, those who live longer have more opportunities to indulge in these experiences. Additionally, a longer lifetime enables people to contribute to society more. Take the musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who died at the tender age of 35. His greatest works include ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ and ‘Rondo Alla Turca’ which are widely enjoyed and studied by many even till today, more than 200 years after they were first composed. Had he lived a longer life, he would have undoubtedly been able to contribute many more great classical pieces to mankind. It is clear that longer life expectancy gives us the chance to experience a happier and more meaningful life all while contributing more to society.
That said, a longer life does not necessarily equate to a more meaningful life, as many people spend their twilight years battling debilitating diseases, live in loneliness or even having to work till the very last second just to feed themselves. The 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study found that while global life expectancy is 73 years, that of healthy life expectancy is only 63, meaning that on average, people spend 10 years living in less than ideal health. This concept of years living in less than ideal health is succinctly captured in ‘Years Lived with Disability (YLDs)’. In other words, while one may technically live a longer life, it may not be any better as the years spent living with a disease, living on medication on a daily basis, shuttling between home and the hospital or even hospitalized for long periods are much worse. Loneliness is also another factor that could significantly reduce the quality of life for the aged, as they may not have friends or family to rely on. As discussed earlier, ‘kodokushi’ in Japan is a phenomenon that was borne out of the rising life expectancy coupled with several other factors. Many of the victims of ‘kodokushi’ are corporate workers who did not have many friends or family outside of work. Retirement, instead of giving them time to live a more fulfilling life, plunged them into isolation as they were removed from the corporate world. The loneliness and despair could have played a role leading up to their eventual deaths, with no one caring enough to visit them in life or death. The elderly poor are also subject to a lower quality of life as they have to work tirelessly, often in menial jobs just to make ends meet. This is particularly prevalent in South Korea, where elderly poor will “work until they die”. They say, “I’ll take care of myself as long as I can … then I’ll go to the hospital and die.” Some scour the streets to pick up recyclables and waste paper, lugging some 100 kilograms of waste for a whole day to the junk depot in exchange for less than 10,000 KRW. Others work in less savoury jobs as elderly prostitutes known as “Bacchus ladies”, soliciting in parks and plazas for a measly pay as well. South Korea sure sits near the top of life expectancy rankings at 82.7 years, but the bitter fates that more than half of the elderly population endures raises the question if it is a fate worse than death. Thus, it is painfully obvious that long bitter lives spent in ill health, isolation and hardship may be even worse than death.
Taking a more philosophical approach, living forever would be meaningless in the long run. Death, paradoxically, gives life the meaning which we all seek. The literal deadline gives urgency to everything we do in life, forcing us to work with a sense of purpose, perhaps to leave behind a legacy, something that is again only possible in death. The hypothetical proposition of eternal life would bore us to death and cause Man to lapse into laziness, cynicism and self-servitude. On the contrary, the fact that we will only exist on this Earth for a mere couple of decades motivates us to live with more drive and zeal, rather than whiling our time away. Acts of nobility, self-sacrifice and creativity are borne out of the knowledge that our time here is finite. In this way, increasing life expectancy taken to the extreme is undesirable and life would be forfeited of any meaning.
In essence, while increased life expectancy may indicate healthy economic growth and good public welfare systems for the nation, it also puts pressure on those very systems, creating a plethora of problems for the national economy. On a personal level, though it affords us the chance to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life, it is also capable of making life more miserable than death. Moreover, philosophically, an endless life would be meaningless. Perhaps, if we lived shorter lives more saturated in meaning instead, fewer of us will end up dying alone and decomposing in our own filth.