Thomas Sutcliffe: Why the rush? We'll be here for centuries

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The Independent Online

I bought the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace the other day, to be shelved, for the foreseeable future, on the "One Fine Day" section of my bookshelves – a holding pen for volumes bought to shore up my sense of myself as an intellectual in potentia, waiting only for enough free time to convert theory into practice.

And if a report from the Cass Business School is to be believed, the foreseeable future is now a little more extensive than it used to be – just that little bit better able to accommodate my considerable powers of procrastination. Researchers for the Cass have done a lot of sums and worked out that the current accepted figure for life expectancy – 76.6 years for men and 81 years for women – is probably too conservative as far as the younger generation go.

Their calculations suggest that men born in 1985 could have a life expectancy of 91 years – a figure that will presumably be quite cheering to today's 22-year-olds but could give the Treasury's actuaries – who have to calculate pensions payouts – a premature heart-attack. And if you were born well before 1985 there's no need to feel left out.

On the wilder fringes of gerontology you can find people prepared to predict even longer lifespans. Aubrey de Grey, more wildly fringed than most, claims that the first person destined to live to 1,000 was probably born by 1945.

The slightly odd thing about the Cass Business School was that it was widely reported not as a cause for universal rejoicing but as grounds for alarm. The vocabulary employed was of "problems" and "timebombs" and "catastrophes". Something similar has been true of recent television programmes about ageing – which generally follow up the good news (life is getting longer) with a furrowed anxiety about the consequences of this alteration to our biological destiny. And the reasons for that are twofold.

The first is that most people assume that a human life will contain the same proportions of youthful vigour, middle-aged rallentando and aged infirmity as it does at present. Double the life, in other words, and you double the ultimate misery. What's more, our natural instinct to think that a life lengthens from its end reinforces the sense that these extra years will be the least attractive available. But there's no logical reason why medical and social advances can't stretch a life in the middle. Those extra years aren't necessarily spavined and bent. They're just as likely to be healthy and active.

The second reason is that we've spent the last 3,000 years of human culture reconciling ourselves to the unavoidable. If there's not much you can do about when you die, it pays to have a stoical and philosophical approach to the event. It may even pay, in terms of psychological tranquillity, to regard the prospect of seriously extended life as a grim burden and to scorn those – like Aubrey de Grey – who obsessively scheme to hold it at bay.

It's a very useful lie this, and I won't be disposing of it until I'm absolutely sure that an alternative is available, but in the meantime the Cass study deserves at least two cheers. Yes, there might be problems paying the bills, and yes, everything depends on the quality of those extra years. But anyone who really thinks an extra 10 years is a disaster can always volunteer to check out early and help the Treasury's figures. I won't be going a day earlier than I have to. There are too many books to read.

A spy's life: just so boring

I'm not confident that MI6's attempt to counter the "James Bond image" by giving Radio One's Newsbeat unprecedented access is going to work. It's a feeble counterpoise to the glamour of the country's best known MI6 man – current avatar Daniel Craig, left. What they really need are dramas which show intelligence work to be indistinguishable from a career in telephone sales.

Peter Kosminsky recently made a start on this enterprise with Britz – in which a Muslim MI5 recruit had to do the tedious paperwork on a phone tap. But there's room for something even drabber. "006 – Licence to File" is what's required – though it might leave them with a different kind of recruitment problem.

* Frequent flyers with British Airways recently received an email titled, "A message from Willie Walsh, our CEO". It invited the recipient to "Be Part of the Decision" regarding the public consultation on Heathrow. But anyone who clicked on the red Find Out More button will have discovered that being part of the decision doesn't actually involve making a decision. British Airways doesn't actually want to know what its customers think about the third runway, only to press a button expressing their support.

Fair enough, you might say. You can't expect a business to lobby against its own interests – and point-and-click activism is used by all its opponents. But anyone who feels that British Airways has quite enough of a voice already – or who simply dislike the weasel headline on this missive – should know that Greenpeace's site offers an easy way to oppose the expansion. As Willie helpfully explains, "doing so will take less than a minute of your time".

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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