'The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.' King James Bible, Psalm 90:10
For Christians, it sounds like a divine promise. Barring accident or disaster, God has practically signed a contract allocating seventy years to every living individual.
If you went over it, then that was a bonus. If you fell short of it, then you have been robbed of your due lifespan. You died too soon.
Nor do you necessarily have to be Christian to believe in such a random figure. A tacit belief in this reality has left its mark upon our lexicon. We state that people enter 'middle age' somewhere around 35 or 40, because they will die around 70-80 years old.
As medical advances and better living conditions are perceived to raise our life expectancy, then our notion of the middle aged moves accordingly. Life begins at forty, when we still seem so very young. Perhaps fifty, or even sixty, is more like it in 2013.
No. My friend Adam was middle aged at nineteen. He died accordingly at thirty-eight. Little Liam entered middle age at six and a half.
Those telling themselves that sixty years old is the new 'middle aged' are implying something quite remarkable. They, and all their peers, are going to live until 120.
The evidence is against them. Only one person in history ever managed that. Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment celebrated her 122nd birthday, before passing on. Her feat of longevity is generally viewed as an anomaly.
Yet no-one seems to regard her as having somehow cheated in the great stakes of life expectancy. It should be the logical conclusion. If a deceased child died too soon, then Madame Calment must have died too late.
But that is missing the function of the 'threescore and ten', as well as the life expectancy figures. They are rough guidelines, something to aim at, but never a guarantee. They are there as reassurance, but not a promise.
They are psychological touchstones, that shatter us when they're not met; then become meaningless when they're surpassed.
People cling to the belief in 'threescore and ten' years, because it has always been a comfort. Despite the fact that, historically, it was a rare individual who actually reached it. Turning over the statistics, it seems that seventy years old has ever been more about luck than likelihood.
As for beyond that, death appears to be more acceptable. "They had a good innings," we sagely remark, even as we're breaking our hearts. Because then, more than any other time, we need to convince ourselves that death is not random. It comes after a certain age. We are still safely distant from our own end.