Back in 1980, when Steve McQueen died, my friend Kingsley and I had a profound conversation on the subject of mortality. Well, considering we were 14 at the time, perhaps it was more precocious than profound. Even at that age though it was dismaying a man of merely 50 years, someone only slightly older than our parents, was no more. If the grim reaper could come so soon for the charismatic cooler king from The Great Escape, the guy who had nominally driven the Mustang in Bullitt, what hope was there for us, a couple of teenage nobodies from Rotorua?
Once we got past the shock of it all some healthy black humour took over. Kingsley suggested a new game, one based on the concept of "the dead pool". In this amusement we were to nominate which film star was to next shuffle off the mortal coil.
Looking back now a number of geriatric veterans of the silver screen were likely candidates. A great documentary on silent cinema had played on television that year, so I should have been able to come up with a few names. The likes of Pola Negri, Colleen Moore and Lillian Gish surely had little petrol left in the tank.
If memory serves correctly, I could not conjure a single nomination. My film buffdom had always existed in Kingsley's shadow anyway, so I bowed to superior wisdom when he made his selection: Ernest Borgnine. While Ernie was only 63, he was beefy and ruddy of face. Judging the book by its cover, Borgnine was bound to succumb to a heart attack or stroke within the year. Whilst mourning the passing of the unlucky-in-love Marty and the Fatso who killed Sinatra in From Here to Eternity, I was in awe of the prescience that so confidently predicted his demise.
As last week's celebrity death notices attested, Kingsley was out by a small matter of 32 years. Little did we know that Borgnine had decades of solid work ahead of him, finding employment in three Dirty Dozen sequels, a two-part episode of The Love Boat and untold instalments of SpongeBob SquarePants. Not only that, but Negri lasted until 1987, Moore survived her by a year and Lillian Gish died just eight months shy of her 100th birthday in 1993.
Sadly, all four of them outlived my friend. Kingsley suffered a fatal asthma attack midway through 1986. To recall the confidence with which we wrote the Borgnine obituary is to go beyond Mark Twain-like irony: not only were rumours of the death greatly exaggerated, but the eulogist himself had a far earlier acquaintance with his maker. I am sure Kingsley would see the funny side.
It is now claimed a newborn baby today has a 50 per cent chance of living to be 100. Presumably there is some solid science behind such a suggestion, a set of assumptions based around ongoing discoveries about our genetic make-up, the eventual conquering of hitherto-incurable diseases like AIDs and optimism that the Americans, the Chinese, the Russians, the Israelis and sundry aggrieved Arabs don't conspire to bring about nuclear holocaust.
Beyond these variables I suspect money and lifestyle will still have a huge part to play. The descendants of out-going Telecom fly fisherman Paul Reynolds will have a better chance of getting a telegram from the sovereign than, say, the children of those who earn minimum wage tending to the personal hygiene of Alzheimer's sufferers. Longevity will remain on average the preserve of the middle class in affluent Western countries. There will be precious few Aboriginal beneficiaries, Bantu tribesman or bus drivers from South Auckland making three figures.
Within New Zealand society a higher life expectancy makes a rise in the retirement age a logical necessity.
Where more serious discussion needs to occur is around the issues of rest-home care, euthanasia and discrimination against the aged, particularly when it comes to employment practice.
The savings debate could stand some improvement as well. Personally, I'm fed up with seeing egg-headed economists on $100k or more telling the impoverished they need to put away vast percentages of their income for a hypothetical future.
When it comes to savings analogies I favour the grasshopper over the ants. There's always the chance that, like Mr Borgnine, you will persist six decades beyond your career highpoint, but Kingsley's example shines brighter. Demographics is an imprecise science. Best live as much for today as for tomorrow.
- © Fairfax NZ News