I read an interesting fact recently—the average lifespan during the Middle Ages was estimated to be around 36 years old, give or take a few years. Today, the average life expectancy for an American female is 78 years, and 76 years for an American male. This means the modern person is living over twice as long as he or she would have lived a thousand years ago. 

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(Of course, there is variance in the so-called average lifespan based on different factors, some as straightforward as genetics or gender, and others rooted in conditions fueled by global and regional socioeconomic inequality. Today, the most obvious impact on disparity in global life expectancy is evident in the effect of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Also, it’s hard to peg just one average number for such a large period of history (“Middle Ages”), but it’s probably a safe claim to say life expectancies have been significantly lower with exceptions throughout most of history as compared to now).

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For the sake of argument, it is safe to say that modern medicine, technology, and sanitation standards have succeeded in achieving the mystical goal of extending a single life to encompass multiple lifespans. To understand the magnitude of this, imagine that a thousand years from now people are living to be 160 years old, on average. That is essentially what has happened to the human race over the last millennium (or really, in the last century or two).

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On a micro level, I have found myself thinking about what this means for our lives, or my life in particular, now that I realize I am living a predicted lifespan that, until recent history, is a length of time that encompasses multiple lifetimes. How many careers can one pursue or justify? Is this why so many people marry more than once over the course of their lives at different points? Do people outgrow or outchange one another? How much of the world is it possible to see, if you entertain the idea our lives are likely to be twice as long on average than they have been historically? How quickly can and do societal values shift and change, given that folks are living longer? How quickly can and do values change in a person who lives long enough to perceive these societal sea changes? How does all of this impact an Earth that is struggling to support us all as we live longer and crowd in, even as people deny that her climate is changing?

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Also consider the fact the pace of the world has picked up substantially given industrialization and technology at the same time life spans have increased. Given this dynamic, how many mini-lives do we begin and end every few years? “Millennials” (if you can stomach that term) are a very accomplished group (according to certain criteria, as we fall far short of being near the level of the Greatest Generation) and “we” are still within the historical lifespan borders. I think about the fact I have completed several years of school, taught high school for 2 years, worked for 3 years in finance, backpacked around the world, and started my law school studies—and I have a few years yet until I turn 30. I am certainly not unique either… I just feel fortunate I was born where and when I was. Most friends of mine and people I know have been fortunate enough to accomplish many of their personal and professional goals while still in their 20s and 30s. And to think we would be in our twilight years now in the Middle Ages…

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I can’t decide if the idea of a long life means we are meant to accomplish more, or if we should strive to go deeper in those things we first set out accomplishing in the first 36 years. And what about the exhaustion factor? Are humans meant to have a shelf life? Will science and technology successfully continue the march toward immortality, and if so, do we really want that? Perhaps the answer is quality over quantity. And then the question becomes how to define quality—do we accomplish more during our years, or accomplish more with our years? 

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