HUMOUR IS A powerful tool, especially on the cover of a current-affairs magazine with a dry-as-sand title like The Economist. The risk of sounding hectoring and stuffily self-important is nicely offset by a cover that does not take itself too seriously.
In 1994, amid a wave of mergers in the United States, we warned that deals were harder to bring off than investors and managers seemed to believe. Unfortunately, humour also risks causing offence. A pair humping camels on the cover of an edition of The Economist from the time got us banned in Saudi Arabia—or at least that is the folk memory here.
This week we have two covers, on the science behind the promise of living to 120, and on the urgent need for the European Union to get bigger. In both cases we were tempted by humour, but ended up playing it straight. See if you think we were right.
For centuries the attempt to stop ageing was the preserve of charlatans touting the benefits of mercury and arsenic, or assortments of herbs and pills, often to disastrous effect. Yet after years of false starts, the idea of a genuine elixir of longevity is taking wing. Should the latest efforts to prolong life reach their potential, living to see your 100th birthday could become the norm; it could be perfectly reasonable to dream of making it to 120.
We started with a birthday cake that can barely accommodate all 120 candles burning brightly on top. The progress that has been made in extending lifespans has so far come by countering the causes of death, especially infectious disease. This time the intention is to slow the process of ageing itself, with its attendant ills such as dementia.
The birthday cake signals not only age but also the fact that there is much to celebrate. But a Google search showed that the cake idea has been used many times before. If the cake was our cover, many readers would feel that we were like a supercentenarian repeating a favourite anecdote—again.
We then tried a more mordant take. A familiar image from British sitcoms is pensioners putting their false teeth in a cup of water at bedtime. Our pensioner is celebrating by plonking them into a glass of bubbly instead.
As our leader explains, living to 120 is still some way off: none of the drugs that promise long-life has yet been tested on people. And even if the body survives, nobody can be sure quite how very old people’s minds will bear up—even if they are free of dementia.
Despite that, teeth-in-champagne doesn’t quite come off. False teeth are a symbol of decay, but the science is about slowing or preventing senescence rather than living with it.
Put off by the sight of chompers in champers, we looked for something else.
This is the design that we ended up choosing. It has energy, it looks forward and it says that living to 120 opens the door to a very different future. Roughly 150 years ago global life-expectancy at birth was 30. Just imagine how different the supercentenarian world would be.
Leader: Living to 120 is becoming an imaginable prospect
Technology Quarterly: Slowing human ageing is now the subject of serious research
The horror of two world wars prompted France, West Germany and others to link arms and create what is today the European Union. Seventy years on, war has returned to the continent. Out of the rubble in Ukraine, something akin to the sentiment that moved the EU’s founding fathers is leading to talk of admitting as many as nine new members, including Ukraine. For the EU itself it would mark the end of a process that started with victory over the Nazis. Bar one or two future applicants (perhaps one day including Britain), the shape of the EU would broadly be settled. But the way the EU works would have to change profoundly.
EU covers can seem distant from readers, threatening them with mind-numbing ruminations about treaty-change and variable geometry. No wonder our designers reached for their tickle-sticks.
They drew up an illustration of Michelangelo’s David, with a large gold star from the EU flag covering his genitals. Nobody could accuse this cover of taking itself too seriously. But plenty of us thought that, beyond a play on the word “enlargement”, the number-one target of spam filters the world over, it really had nothing to say about the issues.
Instead we decided to play with the furniture on our cover. Expanding the EU from 27 to, say, 36 will require the union to rethink its inner workings: a bigger EU will not be a better one if it becomes gridlocked. At 36, it would be foolish to allow a single country’s government to veto collective action, as is the case now for foreign affairs and taxation. The common agricultural policy, which gobbles up a third of the bloc’s budget, will need drastic reform and slimming to stop subsidies flowing to Ukrainian oligarchs running farms the size of some EU countries. Letting in poorer members will shift development funds away from some current recipients.
One idea was for the clumsy word “enlargement” to bust the circle of gold stars that comprises the EU’s flag—but that lacked drama. Another was for a single giant star to shunt aside our masthead and the flashes that signal some of the week’s highlights—but that was hard to read. In a week of compromises, for our final cover we steered somewhere between the two.
One question is whether we were right to reject the schoolboy humour of the false teeth and Michelangelo’s David. A more interesting question is whether, in today’s more puritanical world, we could get away with a pair of copulating camels.
Leader: The war in Ukraine is a powerful reason to enlarge—and improve—the EU
Europe: The EU is—at last—rebooting the enlargement machine
Charlemagne: The definition of Europe has always been both inspiring and incoherent