Following Arnold Gehlen, the German philosopher Odo Marquard (Marquard et al., 1995) once described the human being as a ´time famine creature´ - in German, ´Zeitmängelwesen.´ This means, due to their finite nature, human beings suffer from a chronic lack of time. This problem can be understood as a conditio humana (Schües, 2014) The finiteness of human life has always been a challenge that has been dealt with by corresponding myths, narratives, and religious and metaphysical attempts at explanation. In the context of individualized and consumerist societies, this problem takes on a new relevance and urgency due to some characteristics of those societies and of their anthropological presuppositions.
Following sociological analyses like those proposed by Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002), as well as Zygmut Bauman (Bauman, 2013), individualized and consumerist societies can be characterized by individualism and capitalism. People are understood to be autonomous, independent individuals who are – or at least should try to be – free from the constraints of history, society, and other people. According to this assumption, individuals have their private and authentic preferences, values, attitudes, and life goals. Individualized and consumerist societies are supposed to give people the freedom to discover and develop their individual and authentic preferences and values and to live their own life in order to achieve their personal life goals. Accordingly, individual freedom, understood in the sense of self-determination, is accorded the highest value. As psychologists like Barry Schwarz and Nathan Cheek (Schwartz & Cheek, 2017) emphasize, individuals tend to consider their own life as the result of their own choices and actions, rather than accidents, luck or contingency. The assumption of an individualized and consumerist rationality is that individuals are free to choose and are responsible for giving their lives meaning and to finding ways of self-realization. Contemporary individualized and consumerist societies are mainly dominated by the economic principles of capitalism. Individuals are confronted with an exponential increase in the range of lifestyle options and possibilities for self-realization. Many people, at least in the middle and upper classes, find themselves confronted with unconstrained options when it comes to where they live, what they study, what kind of job they want, what kind of intimate relationships they will enter, and so on.
For individuals living individualized and consumerist societies, situations can evolve which cause them to ´suffer from the passing of time´ (Bozzaro, 2014) and which motivates the use of biomedical-technologies in order to overcome this suffering. In the following, an analysis of what such a suffering of the passing time can consist of, and which possible answers medical technologies offer, is performed.
Suffering from the passing of time: “freezing time” through social egg freezing
Due to its finitude and its fugacity, time can sometimes painfully pressure individuals to make decisions at a certain point in their lifetime - even if they do not want to or feel unable to make them at that moment. An example of this kind of suffering due to temporality is being experienced more and more often by women (Daly & Bewley, 2013). For centuries, childbearing was a woman’s main duty and motherhood was her self-evident social role. However, since the 1970s, the availability of effective contraceptive methods has served as a stepping stone for broader female emancipation, leading a growing number of women to take advantage of educational, employment, and career opportunities and become increasingly independent – also from an economic perspective (Callahan, 2009; Coontz, 2004). Since education and starting a career are time consuming and not always compatible with child care, there has been a massive delay in childbearing, especially among highly educated women (Mills et al., 2011). The trend towards delaying parenthood can be observed in the vast majority of OECD countries. Between 1970 and 2019, the mean age of women giving birth increased by between two and five years in most OECD countries, with a mean age at first birth of 30 or above (OECD Family Database www.oecd.org/social/family/database, accessed September 17, 2021).
The assumption of an individualized and consumerist rationale is that individuals are given freedom of choice and therefore responsible for the consequences of the choices and decisions they freely make (Hayek, 2012). Individualized and consumerist ideology is distinct from other ideologies that also accentuate individual freedom of choice and responsibility, such as in the philosophy of the Enlightenment (e.g. Immanuel Kant), as freedom is seen only as an expression of personal preferences and individual values. As critics like Michael Sandel and Charles Taylor observe, neo-liberal ideology does not take into consideration that an individual’s freedom is often coerced by social constraints. This is especially true in consumerist societies where personal preferences and values are often deeply influenced by the offers of the market and advertising (Sandel, 1982; Taylor, 1992). This ideology influences how childbearing and motherhood are seen and approached.
Women fortunately have more freedom to plan their lives according to their wishes and expectations (Goldin, 2006). Yet at the same time, they face new societal expectations. As Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (Beck-Gernsheim, 1988) points out, and as analysis from media-discourses confirm (Budds et al., 2013), a woman nowadays does not just have the option, but rather the obligation, to plan her life according to rational and responsible considerations. Women want, need, and are expected to graduate and to have successful careers. Since divorce rates have increased and marriage no longer serves as an institution that safeguards women without income, women also need to be financially independent. In order to achieve all this, women must organize their lives in a conscious, “rational” way, which includes using the contraceptive methods offered by reproductive medicine to schedule their reproduction. As Beck-Gernsheim shows, young women who do not use contraception and thus “risk” getting pregnant are “endangering” their education and careers and may now be accused of acting unreasonably and irrationally (Beck-Gernsheim, 1988; Budds et al., 2013). At the same time, as some feminist scholars claim, modern societies are still “implicitly pronatalist” (Smajdor, 2009). It can be seen that great importance is also placed on women having children. Since it is well known that late pregnancies bear more risks, women are also expected to choose the “biologically optimal” time to conceive (Carroll & Kroløkke, 2018). Considering these points, the current social expectation of women is: To be a “modern” woman, they should pursue education, employment, and financial independence, but at the same time they should not forget to settle down in a stable relationship to have children at the “right” time and be a “responsible” mother, too. Women are expected to ideally combine social and biological time constraints.
The timing of pregnancy is not always a straightforward choice that depends solely on a woman’s life plans and her priorities. As research has shown, one of the most important prerequisites people consider for parenthood is a stable relationship (Baldwin, 2019; Eriksson et al., 2012; Hodes-Wertz et al., 2013; Stoop et al., 2015). Therefore, before a woman can realize her desire for a child, she must first find a suitable partner. For an increasing number of women, however, the search for ´Mr. Right´ turns out to be tedious and time-consuming. As the Israeli Sociologist Eva Illouz (Illouz, 2012) illustrates in her well-known book Why Love Hurts, having a child is often seen as the culmination of a stable, romantic relationship in individualized and consumerist societies. Modern love is characterized by liberalization, which means that people are free to choose their partners in accordance with personal preferences. Increased mobility and new technologies, such as internet-dating, make it possible to interact with more and more people from all around the world, meaning the field of potential partners has grown. But at the same time, as Illouz notes, the uncertainty about how to make ´the right´ or ´good’ choice in the face of so many possibilities have grown, too. This has led to a high number of young adults seemingly no longer able to make a suitable choice for a stable relationship at all. For women who desire motherhood, a painful situation can result since their “time-window” for conceiving naturally narrows due to biological constraints. Therefore, they may end up in a situation where they feel pressured by their so-called biological clock, a time-metaphor that is omnipresent in the discourse on social egg freezing (Amir, 2007). This can lead to a woman wanting to ´freeze time´, and consequently stop the pressure time is putting on her (Baldwin et al., 2019). With egg freezing, a woman can entertain, at least theoretically, the possibility of becoming pregnant at a later point in time, even after the ´natural border´ of menopause. The egg freezing procedure consequently promises to liberate women from their biological clock by shifting a boundary temporality placed on their reproductive possibilities.
Suffering from the passing of time: “stop and reverse time” through anti-aging-medicine
The experience women have had regarding their limited reproductive possibilities can be interpreted as a peculiar experience of finitude and fugacity. The suffering which can arise is caused by being confronted with an important life choice – having children – that simply will not be available after a certain point in time. Not only women’s reproductive possibilities are finite and ephemeral, but also the lives of all human beings. This conditio humana, however, is a special challenge in individualized and consumerist societies, where an individual´s expectation of self-fulfillment and happiness become higher and higher in proportion to the possibilities that a whole industry is producing for its consumers (Bauman, 2013). Often, one becomes aware of the finitude and the irreversibility of one’s own life through the experience of aging. In one’s youth, the future may seem endless and therefore, endless opportunities of self-fulfillment and life-projects seem possible. Through aging, one becomes more and more aware of time passing and the possibilities and experiences that could have been. Throughout a lifetime, one can only choose a limited number of projects and experiences, meaning others must be excluded. Considering this, becoming aware of one’s own aging can lead to making oneself painfully notice the time constraints on an individuals’ expectations and wishes.
There are at least two ways people can react to this problem with anti-aging medicine. The first is, analogous to the answer given through social egg freezing: trying to ´stop time´. Often, particularly physical changes create awareness of aging, in both oneself and others. Gray hair and wrinkles that appear on the face are visible signs of a temporal process that all people are subject to. Anti-aging treatments, such as cosmetic surgery, are supposed to eliminate these visible signs of aging to maintain a more youthful appearance. The second way is to ´reverse aging´. As mentioned in the introduction, for some proponents of anti-aging medicine, the aim is not only to stop the aging process, but to reverse the passing of time. Here the distinction between biological and chronological age becomes crucial. While the biographical, or chronological age, is calculated according to the date of birth, the biological age determines the ´actual´ state of a person’s bodily and mental fitness, and is measured by various biomarkers. Since, in addition to epigenetic factors, these values are supposed to depend mostly on one´s lifestyle, biological age can be influenced (Abbott, 2019). Prevention and comprehensive anti-aging treatments, such as a ketone based diet that seemingly has a rejuvenating effect on brain activities (Weistuch et al., 2020), can not only help to avoid premature aging, but even rejuvenate one’s own biological age. Stopping and reversing the aging process to maintain youth can be interpreted as an answer in the face of a suffering caused by finite time passing by. Maintaining youth means to maintain an open future, with open windows of opportunity. (Bozzaro, 2014).
Suffering from the passing of time: “acceleration” through enhancement
Individualized and consumerist societies have been described as, among other things, performance-oriented societies that are mainly dominated by the economic principle of capitalism (Rosa, 2013; Stein, 2018). This also has consequences for the perception of time, because “time is money,“ meaning that time should be used in an economically effective way. A common way to use time optimally is by accelerating activities and processes. As sociologists like Paul Virilio (Virilio, 1986) and Hartmut Rosa (Rosa, 2013) have shown, modern societies distinguish themselves through an enormous acceleration of all of time’s rhythms. In both the world of work and the private sphere, individuals must make an optimal allocation of their time resources to fulfil their own and others’ expectations, and to attain all possibilities of their self-realization. Individuals who want to hold on to their career aspirations and simultaneously not miss out on life or on leisure activities must compensate for the brevity of their lifetime by speeding through life. One way to increase tempo has come through the development of new ´time saving´ technologies, such as washing machines: There is no doubt that cleaning clothes in the washing machine is much faster and easier than if one washed them by hand. While the machine cleans the laundry, one can do something else.
Another way to gain time is to improve one’s own physical and cognitive abilities to do things more efficiently. Using doping, and especially through cognitive or neuro-enhancement, one can expect to boost one’s own physical and cognitive capacities to do things better and faster. ´Optimizing´ the need for sleep, or the ability to concentrate, one can not only do things better and more effectively, but also faster. Empirical studies have shown that, for example, the (mis)-use of Ritalin or methylphenidate as a neuro- or cognitive enhancing substance has increased (McDermott et al., 2021). Ritalin is an amphetamine drug type that is typically prescribed as therapy to individuals with ADHD. In recent years, the use of Ritalin among healthy adults, such as students, to enhance cognitive functioning has been increasing. Students mention the improvement of academic performance as one main reason for the use of this drug (DuPont et al., 2008; Peterkin et al., 2011).