What If Everyone Knew When They Were Going to Die?

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Sean Harris
Written by Sean Harris

Throughout history humanity has strived to prolong its life, aiming to survive for as long as possible by delaying death through all sorts of lifestyle choices and well-being techniques. But, what if we all knew precisely when we were going to die? How would that knowledge change day-to-day life? What impact would it have on global society? And, what sort of psychological shift would it inspire?

What If Everyone Knew When They Were Going to Die?

Death. It’s the ultimate, inescapable inevitability of our mortal lives. A long and often ominous shadow over our everyday existence. And, despite centuries of scientific research and eons of religious philosophy, we still don’t really understand it.

Contemporary medicine does offer an ever-growing list of tips, tricks and theories on how to prolong our time on Earth, or at least increase our chances of living past a certain age. And, with life expectancy figures steadily rising in the twenty-first century, the advances we’ve made have brought positive results. In 2015, the World Health Organisation reported that the average global life expectancy had risen to 71.4 years – a five-year increase since the year 2000. Women are more likely to live longer than men, and Western Europeans hold the highest average by region – though Japan tops the scale for individual countries.

But the sweeping statistics still offer little insight on a case-by-case, life-by-life basis. So, saying exactly when a certain person will die is still impossible. Even when a patient is suffering from a terminal illness, the prognosis includes only an estimation on the time they’re likely to have left. And, according to a review by University College London published in 2016, those predictions often prove inaccurate by as much as 93 days – while research published in The BMJ (formerly known as British Medical Journal) in 2003 found that predictions were ‘correct to within a week’ only 25% of the time.

But, what if we did have a greater grasp on the great beyond? What if there was no need for educated guesswork, because we were actually born knowing when we were going to die? How would the world be different if everyone had a predetermined death day?

Of course, this thought experiment requires a couple of crucial criteria points to be put in place. First off, our hypothetical humans know when they’re going to die, and they’re unavoidably aware of it throughout their entire lives – like an inherited memory. But, they don’t know how it will happen, and they’re not immortal until their death day arrives. You can still be killed by unforeseen situations like a car accident or become a victim of violent crime before your death is due, but illness or old age will not cause you to expire early. Essentially, your death day reflects your maximum stay within your own body, but you’re not guaranteed a full term. Life carries on as normal, except everyone knows precisely how long they hope to have left.

But, back to the matter in hand: Death days, and how they would definitely change the world. Strangely, our general interest in our own health and well-being would probably plummet. If everyone’s marked to meet their maker at a pre-planned time and date, there’d be no need to worry over every little ache and pain because you’d know it’s not going to kill you – unless your death day’s in a couple of weeks, in which case it will, but you can’t do anything about it anyway. Diet trends and fitness fads would be forced to focus solely on the social and psychological benefits of sport and healthy eating, because the physical gains would never seem quite as important if death is a fixed point. But, for as long as we can eat what we want without it affecting our lifespan, we’re likely to kick the kale and pile up on pizza.

And the reckless abandon wouldn’t end there. Life insurance would obviously be non-existent, along with most types of insurance scheme, loan agreement or savings system, because our conventional sense of value would be completely rewritten. Any purchase that’s made, experience that’s bought or journey that’s planned would be evaluated by the percentage of our time it takes, and the percentage we’re willing to part with. So, time really would be money, and you’ll never be richer than at the beginning of your life, when your death day is furthest away.

Ultimately, entire class systems could be built on death days, as those with similar lifespans would group (or be grouped) together. Application forms would include a box labelled ‘date of death’, with people at least partly assessed based on the time they have left. Death Day prejudice would probably influence all aspects of society, with job opportunities, housing options, school education and retirement plans all shaped by the state of your body clock. And this isn’t a wealth that can be shared around, either. And it would be impossible to improve your status. So, once your funds are low, there’s no going back.

But, it’s not necessarily all doom and gloom. If death dates became a fact of life, then goods and services would inevitably be tailored to specific stages of that life. So, travel companies might offer stage-specific vacations for those with twenty years left to live, five, or just one. Or, supermarkets might taper promos, so that anyone within their last weeks has the widest choice available. And although a long-term career would be off the cards, the days leading up to your death day could become a kind of constant celebration. Given that everyone has been innately and specifically aware of their own impermanence since their very first breath, there are zero surprises – which could lead to greater acceptance of death, and certainly much more prior planning for the big day. At the very least there’d be a Facebook notification, inviting all of your friends to send their regards – and many of them would probably be approaching their death days too, given how society could shape itself.

However, it’s difficult to imagine that the psychological shift would be all for the better. If at all. In real life, humans have a tried and tested tendency to believe they’re invincible, even though they’re obviously not. Take that away, and the death day could easily become an obsession – so that dying becomes the point of living.

In the same way as it could (and probably would) shape our standard of living, it would also rule over every relationship we ever try to make. Take dating. With death dates in play, looking for love becomes a morbid game of strategy, largely directed by how close each party is to dying – and whether each can get what they want from the other, knowing the time scale they have to work within. Again, there’d likely be a tendency to pick partners with similar death days, or even identical dates, but that’s before the prospect of building a family confuses the issue even more.

Here’s where ‘family planning’ truly takes hold, as couples would likely only have children if they can ensure a minimum time to look after them and see them grow. It might be a personal choice, but it could also become a legal issue – with pregnancies outlawed if the parents fall below a minimum requirement of ‘years left to live’. But that implies that there’s a government to make any type of law in the first place, which there might not be.

Armed with the knowledge of our own day of reckoning, the human race would be much less likely to toe the line for authority figures at all. Behaviors could become much less predictable, and anarchy could rule. Who needs any kind of work ethic if you’re living on limited time? What’s to stop you telling everyone what you really think of them, if you’ve only got hours to go? While the majority of people would hopefully rein in the hate, to spend their remaining time with loved ones instead, death-dayers could become some of the most volatile, violent and dangerous people around. And, seeing as every day’s a death day for someone, the situation would need around the clock policing – by a police force innately aware that one day it’ll be their death day, too.

With absolute assurance that they’ll face no consequences for their actions, anyone could do anything on the eve of their own demise – knowing that their fate is already sealed, and they really won’t be around for the aftermath. And, here’s where things could get really ugly, with crime sprees and even mass murders going unpunished – ending the lives of victims before their death date is due.

So, regardless of what an individual’s state of mind seems to be, it’s quite conceivable that death days should necessitate some kind of forced isolation, or even imprisonment, for people whose time is almost up – even for the well-meaning types who only want to spend their last supper with family and friends. Should society take this direction, then people would probably have to be plucked from their daily routines without prior warning – to avoid any kind of cognitive countdown setting in. So, everyone would live in fear of whenever their freedom might be taken away from them. Again though, that’s only if there’s a government to man the system – which there probably wouldn’t be.

On a lighter note, while death days could bring about all sorts of self-inflicted struggle and destruction, they could also inspire us to work together to solve the ultimate problem – how to beat your own date of death? Whole branches of science and industry would likely be dedicated to how and why death dates exist, with specialists striving to achieve the impossible by living longer than their allocation.

At the very least, the death day world version of doctors and nurses could offer some kind of medicine to make death easier – and there would still be a need for professional healthcare, even if our own interest in personal health has decreased, because some causes of death could still steal months or years from what would otherwise be a comfortable life. There’d also likely be a booming black market for non-prescribed, illicit substances, which could even claim to help you ‘forget your death day’ on a temporary basis – so there’d be a constant incentive for science to defy the death day, if only to reduce the wave of addiction to those drugs.

While their fated date could send lots of people mad, it could also galvanise the human race into working toward a common goal. In amongst the conceivable chaos, the everyday man, woman and child could look on the bright side, fill their days with worthwhile pursuits, enjoy the time they’re given and try to improve the planet for whoever’s scheduled as the next generation. General self-esteem might actually improve too, because no one would worry over the small stuff. And ‘bucket lists’ could become custom-built itineraries, ready to tick off whenever your life’s plan makes time for it.

But, wouldn’t we still be missing something? Even in this super-safe ideal of the death day debate, the lack of spontaneity leaves it seeming fairly sombre. And the constant conveyor belt of everyday existence has never been plainer to see. Again, the date of our death would be the reason we live – and that’s just never going to work.

So, if there’s a happy medium between constant panic and pointless planning, then death days could provide an unprecedented and universal sense of structure. But in all likelihood, knowing when you and everyone else were going to die would probably derail the human race beyond all recognition.