Legacy Project

“Bacon makes everything better.”—a sign in Susannah Mushatt Jones’s kitchen.

Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, NY, is 116 years old today. She was born on July 6, 1899, in Alabama, and one of her grandparents was a slave. When Jeralean Talley died in June at the age of 116, Miss Jones became the oldest verified person on Earth. “I’m the oldest person in the world? No I’m not,” she is said to have exclaimed to her relatives.

At the moment, Mushatt Jones and Emma Morano of Italy, who was born in November 1899, are the last two people alive who were born in the 19th Century. The last breath of that century is upon us.

That said, either one of these two people could yet outlive me. Further, although each woman is on the top 20 list of longest lived people of all time, they have several years to catch up to Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. No one with the paperwork to prove it has lived longer than she did.

Someone born today will be here 100 years from now. In the most recent U.S. Census, about 17 individuals out of every 100,000 people were 100 years old or older. In raw numbers, that means there are 50,000-plus centenarians in the U.S. right now, at this moment.

Are there more centenarians now than in the past? That question is not one that can be answered, but for most of the last century the number of governments that were not keeping bureaucratic records about facts concerning the country’s population has dwindled to almost zero, and the number of countries committed to falsifying bureaucratic records has also dwindled to a very few.

(Some Americans of a certain age may remember television ads for a brand of yogurt, of all things, that featured Soviet citizens about whom it was claimed many were a century old or older because they ate yogurt every day. They weren’t. They didn’t. Not a one of them was even 100. Thus did the capitalist yogurt company and the communist government with a fake bureaucracy find a mutually happy not-exactly-true lie to sell to those to whom they each wanted to sell things: yogurt in one case, and the concept that one particular type of government breeds longevity in its population in the other.)

Thus the true number of centenarians and supercentenarians (this is the catchy term for those who live to be 110 years old and older) is knowable, is verifiable, at this present moment, better than at any time in history.

There may not be more people 100 years old and older right now than in decades past, but there are more that have been counted and verified as truly 100 years old and older. This will continue, and perhaps we will see more centenarians per 100,000 people or perhaps we will learn that 17 per 100,000 (our current reality) is an anomaly, a remarkable and high number; perhaps when I turn 100 on November 18, 2068, I will be alone, one out of 100,000, the oldest man.

In 2012, the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) officially disagreed with me. I will not be alone when I turn 100, it reported, and further, the number of super-elderly people will increase dramatically in the next century. To be fair, the ONS did not name me by name in its report. The report carries the explosive and yet somehow dull title, “One third of babies born in 2013 are expected to live to 100,” and in it the ONS said that based on its estimates, well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? Expectations. This is one prediction that only time can reveal.

Even if the numbers remain roughly 15–20 persons out of every 100,000, that means that it is likely that someone born today will be here on July 6, 2115. Someone born this year might live to 116 or even 122 years of age. If the per capita number of centenarians will increase to 33%, which is one-third of the population the last time I checked, well, wow.

Each of these future centenarians born today will be something of a walking museum of life as it is lived now and will be lived in years to come:

Life in 2015. His or her first portrait with parents: taken with a phone held on a selfie-stick and posted within seconds on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter. Several dozen hearts are clicked on Instagram within seconds, several dozen thumbs-ups are awarded on Facebook, and several dozen diaper companies start trollowing the family’s account on Twitter. (I swear that I think I just came up with that term, “trollowing.” For troll accounts.)

Not ten years ago, not one clause of the sentences in the previous paragraph would have made sense or meant anything (a photo with a phone on a stick?); ten years from now, these descriptions may not mean anything once again. As far as social media and technology are concerned, there will be descriptions of how a happy family celebrates five and ten years from now that will have phrases that might sound funny right now but will not then. The universal is that today’s birth will be celebrated.

I am 46, but because of the demographics of my family—both of my parents were older than 25 when I was born and both of them were born to parents already in their 30s, who were later children in their own families and born to parents in their 30s, too—my great-grandparents were all born in the 1860s and 1870s. One hundred years ago is not far away for a slow-developing family like this. (And if I ever become anyone’s father, that kid may bring the 19th Century into the 22nd.)

Technology changes, and terminology changes with it, and the global nature of communication technologies can make the permanence of each change or each new thing seem ever more absolute and complete and yet ever more temporary and brief, but life will remain just as easy and just as difficult over the next century. Twenty years from now, I will hear my as-yet imaginary child notice that time seems to be moving quicker than in the past, just as I said to my parents 20 years ago.

Our selfie-stick (something I have not yet purchased as of July 6, 2015) will be sitting in a closet somewhere, having been abandoned years before (in 2021) for something newer and cooler and thus more “useful.” And Susannah Mushatt Jones and Emma Morano might still be alive.

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Inspired by a column from a couple months ago.

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  1. The Reluctant Scribbler · July 6, 2015

    What an interesting post. Let’s hope you reach your 100 years. I will be 111 when you do 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Leigh W. Smith · July 6, 2015

    Trollowing is a great coinage, Mark. And, definitely, here’s hoping you reach a spry 100 and beyond!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. loisajay · July 6, 2015

    Trollowing? Genius, Mark. Let’s hope you can keep those great thoughts for 54 more years.

    Liked by 1 person

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