One of the regulars was talking with the hairdresser when I entered. He was an elderly but energetic man, the owner of a small chain of restaurants. They were chatting about life. “You’ll see,” he assured her, as men his age tend to do, “when you get to my age, 68, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.” But the hairdresser interjected: “I don’t even want to think about 68. Given that I don’t have a pension and won’t have one, either, I don’t intend to reach that age.”
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It sounded like a typically provocative statement that young people like to say. Just as predictably, the client told her she was “talking nonsense.” But the young hairdresser was adamant: “I don’t intend to get to 68.”
This is a simple human situation that has existed since the dawn of time: an older person, looking down from a remove of many years, describing his life to a young interlocutor as though observing the flow of a large river. But in our era, older people have no partners for this dialogue. Underlying the commonplace complaints about the challenges facing the younger generation, a stubborn truth prevails: In another 30 years we will probably not be here. Not because our biological life will have ended – medicine is developing apace, and the human heart may go on beating for 200 years. But life will be so different that we will no longer be us.
Note that the hairdresser didn’t say she was “living in the moment.” That’s a banal, largely meaningless remark. More than in the past, life is constructed from projects. We are all being hurled into the future, orientated toward a specific horizon. But that horizon sometimes seems to exist just two months down the line. In any event, that horizon is no longer life in its totality.
What is “life in its totality”? It’s the basic unit through which people used to view life. The sum of human considerations was based on a familiar life cycle: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death.
According to the German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918), life is the ultimate, most primary objectivity one can talk about. Life precedes politics, philosophy and work – they are meant to serve life, while at the same time being borne on its currents. From the boundaries of life, we observe the universe and probe the mind: both the astronaut and psychologist leave work and return to life. First comes life, then that which fills it.
The life experience described here was dealt a blow in the last century. In his 1942 memoir “The World of Yesterday,” writer Stefan Zweig contemplated the difference between life as it was lived in earlier generations and in his generation. Whereas his forebears had lived “a single life from beginning to end a life of hardly noticeable transitions,” the life of his generation had been of an entirely different character: “In our lives there was no repetition; nothing of the past survived, nothing came back. It was reserved for us to participate to the full in that which history formerly distributed, sparingly and from time to time” (translation: Anthea Bell).
The Austrian-born Zweig, who fled to Brazil in the face of Nazism, was referring to the world wars, the crises and extremist regimes that succeeded one another in Europe during the last decades of his life. Immediately after writing the memoir, he committed suicide. But it’s not necessarily catastrophic political shocks that are dismantling the structure of life in our time. That might be the situation in coming decades, but tectonic change is already occurring.
Most new entrants to the labor market in recent years have experienced their professional life as a series of short-term projects, so they position themselves accordingly. It’s not by chance that young people are forgoing academic studies. The reason is clear: There’s no point in higher education or lengthy on-the-job training and long-term planning. Since in another decade we will have to be a different person anyway, that person will have to get along based on the existing conditions.
How many people under the age of 40 imagine that they will be in the same job 20 years from now? Indeed, that the profession they are working in will still exist in two decades? Those who don’t own a home will have to move elsewhere within a few years, but within a decade it’s likely they will have to move to a different city, too. Work, family structure, our social milieu and natural surroundings are all being transformed at unprecedented speed. In five years, how many of us will believe in the same things we believe in now? The only thing that’s stable is money in Swiss banks.
Today’s world can be compared to a factory in China that makes gadgets. Every so often, it’s announced that the plant has shifted to produce a new model and then, even before that new gadget is built, a new production line is put in place; the workers are retrained and, above all, told to forget all the irrelevant knowledge they formerly possessed. The factory produces not only the gadgets but also the machines and the people, even the managers. The new production line also produces the new managerial ideology and forges the minds of the manufacturers. After a few days, they believe that the new model has always existed.
Contemporary cultural and political phenomena illustrate the consequences of this life experience. Many people appear to be searching for forms of continuity beyond the short horizon of existence. Nationalism, for example, is enjoying renewed attractiveness in the present era because, within a fragmented time, the life of a people allows for continuity. “The noble-minded man’s belief in the eternal continuance of his influence even on this earth is thus founded on the hope of the eternal continuance of the people from which he has developed,” wrote Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), one of the fathers of nationalism (translation: R.F. Jones and George Henry Turnbull).
This is all very attractive in our time: The life of the nation holds out the promise of welding the fragments of limited existence into something that is more than life.
Another option is available to meet the yearning for “more-than-life” – namely, to adapt existence to short, “less-than-life” frameworks. This may account for the popularity of drugs such as MDMA (commonly known as E). In some ways, its status resembles that of marijuana two decades ago. In Europe, and to a large degree Israel as well, it’s gradually becoming the drug of choice for young members of the middle class. It functions as a wedding and birthday-party drug, and is present even at normal social gatherings. This may be related to a change in the experience of time. For beyond the euphoria it produces, E narrows the horizon of life to a few hours. In that time period, the user experiences a full and rich cycle of life, forges powerful social ties (which will fall apart immediately afterward) and even formulates a certain type of transitory worldview.
This is the life cycle of a mosquito, but a life cycle nonetheless. Mosquitos aren’t used to thinking about what they’ll do at the age of 68.