Supercentury

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

As of today, March 10, 2016, the 19th Century is still alive. Two individuals born in the century before last, Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York, and Emma Morano of Verbania, Italy, are still with us. Each was born in 1899. Thus, the last breath of that century is nearly here. They are the two oldest people on the planet. The third oldest, a Jamaican woman named Violet Brown, turns 116 today, but she was born in 1900; she is the oldest person alive who was born in the 20th Century.

That said, either one of these two women could yet outlive me. (I started cleaning the back porch two days ago and I am still out of breath. I’m 47 going on a not very robust 88.) 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 Jeanne Calment did.

Miss Mushatt Jones is 116 years and 248 days 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, 2015, 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.

Miss Morano was born on November 29, 1899, 116 years and 102 days ago.

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.

(Who is the oldest person you ever met when you were young? How far back do your connections reach? When I was about 10, in 1978, my sister and I met a woman who was about 100, so to the best of my memory, one day I shook hands with the 1870s.)

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.

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

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. Well, no. They weren’t. They didn’t. Not a one of them was even 100 years of age. Thus, the capitalist yogurt company and the communist government with a fake bureaucracy found for themselves a mutually happy not-exactly-true lie to use 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.

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 about my future as a lonely centenarian. I will not be alone when I turn 100, it reported, and further, the number of super-elderly people (110 years and older) 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 March 10, 2116. 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 2016. 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 Twitter accounts. Perhaps the word “trollowing” will be my one legacy as a writer.)

Not ten years ago, not one clause of the sentences I wrote 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. (Except “trollowing.” That’s gonna stick around.) 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 sound odd then. The universal truth is that today’s birth will be celebrated.

I am 47, 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 each among the later children in their own families and also born to parents in their 30s, too—my great-grandparents were all born in the 1860s and 1870s, and none were alive when I popped on the scene. 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 today) 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 and the 19th Century might still be alive.

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This is a re-write of a piece from last summer.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for March 10 asks us to reflect on the word, “Legacy.”

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