Death defines us

imageMy impression of modern consumer society is that the whole edifice, in recent decades, has been built around the avoidance of death or its reminder. It has become the crux of existence and (I feel) has led to the rampant materialism and consumerism which exists today. Death defines us in modernity. This is a huge statement to make and I think I shall need to explain myself less cryptically.

In the old days there was a distinct belief in Allah (God, for the West). This meant that there was an afterlife. When there was an afterlife, it meant that death was just another phase of our journey. It also meant we had something spiritual and non-material to aim for. We could achieve everlasting success, by doing good stuff, which may come at the expense of material success in this life. From the times of Hazrat Ibrahim (and earlier), man had grounded his belief in Allah and great deeds were done on this basis (and some not so great!).

Somewhere, in the last three centuries, as the age of reason and logic took over, this strong belief in an omnipotent God declined. As this thought developed, the belief in afterlife became weak. The motivation for being spiritual declined and sacrifice in this life for the next one, disappeared. But death was still there, very visible round a corner. It now became a bigger problem, as afterlife was a question mark. So how to hide from death? Humanity went out in search of that cure.

There is of course no such cure. We all are traveling towards death daily and will get there sooner or later. Extension of life is a goal (I wrote about recently), but death still resides at the end of it, even after a long life. But, at least one can remove the reminder of it. More and more we erased the concept and mention of death. Anti violence movements, safety considerations at work (safety rules are huge in manufacturing organisations) and anti-war movements became stronger. The anti-Vietnam movement was the first one of its kind. Standalone, this is a good thing. But, taken as a trend and a continuum, it gradually works on our collective psyche. When some US service men were killed in a rescue effort in Somalia in the early 90s, the horror of the US population was quite visible. I remember Clinton remarking that enemies must be rejoicing, that USA can be intimidated by a few deaths. Recently, the furore about Mother Teresa being declared a saint, was ridiculous. The lady died two decades ago, how does it matter to her if she is declared a saint? Having an everlasting name in this world seems huge to the living, but the truth is it is not important at all. When your innings is finished, the judgement is made by someone else. What the living think of a dead person,  is irrelevant in reality.

This of course over the years has become a part of society. Our culture today seems to be about withdrawal from the reality of death. We establish our legacy in an overt style, because we feel what is left behind will sustain our name. So we will cheat death, by living on through the presence of our legacy. Tall buildings; iconic monuments; grand sites; big titles; all created to overcome that desperation. Alas they come to naught. We would do well to understand Shelley’s Ozymandias.

* picture from etsy.com

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The Ageing Phenomenon

imageThey say Al-Khidr (the Green Man) was with Hazrat Ibrahim(as). A millennia later, he was a teacher, of Hazrat Musa(as) as stated in Surah Kahaf. And then, so many auliya have testified they met him over the ages. Al-Khidr has been eternal. We also know Hazrat Nuh lived 950 years in his long struggle for righteousness. Eternity has long been a desire of humans, but we realise it is not a physical possibility for us commoners. At the least, we can crave an extension of our present day life and so we endeavour to achieve this dream.

Science has reached a stage where digitalisation of medicine will lead us to that extension of life expectancy. With the mapping of the human genome, we are able to predict in advance illnesses and counter them. Also with the concept of stem cells, we are experimenting developing human organs. So, when organs fail, then we shall replace those organs – imagine hearts and livers being replaced with new ones. Its almost like a factory, with machinery parts being repaired and sometimes replaced.

The above does not guarantee the quality of existence, as we slow down with age. Therefore, a further push to actually reduce the ageing effect on the body is underway. Age registers on us, because excess air enters between cells during a lifetime. This makes cells sluggish and causes ageing. Scientists are in search to find a cure and expectation is eventually we shall live long with little signs of the deadly age virus.

Already countries like Japan are facing this health and age revolution. It is just the beginning! A life expectancy of 100-120 years is well on the cards. A new world and the behavioural, societal and economic impact is unimaginable.

An ageing population means the demographics will change dramatically. The population base will be lopsided. Older people, fewer births and therefore fewer younger ones. The behavioural changes are just mind boggling. From conversation, to social intercourse, to motivation of life will all change. Imagine fewer laughs, less adventure, more measured behaviour, the need for entertainment will change. People will interact very differently and that will lead to a new set of behaviours, especially in the social media age.

The second effect will be societal. Today generally people work upto 40 years and by the end of which attrition has taken over and they retire. Mostly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs set in and humans then search for self actualisation. This is so with an average life expectancy of mid 70s. What if this climbs to well over a 100? The societal impacts are staggering. People could be working an average of 60 years and the work force will have several generations in it. From a young person of 20 to an older one of 85, with Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z all part of same set up. What would happen to sports participation and viewing. How would change be accommodated by older people, for instance rampant technological innovation. Harmony between several generations of society could be a huge problem. Society structures will change.

Economic impact will be the biggest challenge. Demographic tilt towards old age means that the pyramid of burden will reverse. Fewer will carry the responsibility of the whole. Pensions and health services will be really stretched. Many more aged will use these services and many less young will have to finance it. As few will be working (the population ages) much reliance will be on automation and computers with cognitive artificial intelligence. Thus the labour force will be dramatically changed and this will also effect corporate working. In an unimaginable corporate world, HR systems will be altered drastically, as the hunt for suitable young talent will be cut throat. How that effects the psychology of an employee is an unknown area. Maybe most humans shall want to forego responsibility and not work at all. Naturally as resources are shifted to different areas of the economy, the planning experts will have to manage this restructuring, when fiscal and money resources are reallocated. This will not happen without much resentment, hence there may be world-wide generational conflicts.

My only conclusion is, I am content that this is beyond my time.

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