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We Need to Rethink Our Ideas About Aging

How old we are shouldn’t determine who we are

Credit: Fernando Trabanco Fotografia/Moment/Getty

TThere’s an old-school video game we all know in which you guide your little plumber along in a straight line. Once you pass a certain point, you can’t go back; only the path ahead can be rendered. Behind lies nothing but pixelated memories.

Now compare that to the huge scope of an open-world game. There’s ostensibly a main quest, but the real joy comes from exploration, from getting lost, from going back to revisit something in the light of newly acquired information or skills or just out of sheer curiosity.

Our traditional idea of a linear progression from “youth” to “age” is like the former. We pass through each stage — youth, adulthood, middle age, late middle age, old age — dealing with their expectations in sequence. Once a level is complete, it is done, no matter how much you might have enjoyed it or want to have a go at doing it better. There’s an accepted order and set expectations, and seemingly we don’t question them.

If you have any assumptions about what aging means, you’re probably wrong.

This is a horribly limiting way to live our lives. What if we wanted to start from the bottom in a new career in our forties? What if we wanted to try casual dating in our fifties? And what if we felt ready to pioneer bold new approaches to senior management in our twenties? I believe all those things are possible, if only we could relax the tyranny of expectation bound up with our understanding of “youth” and “age.”

If you have any assumptions about what aging means, you’re probably wrong.

How old we are doesn’t and shouldn’t determine who we are. This is particularly pertinent in a world where we are living longer, healthier lives and where birth rates are falling. Our aging population means it’s more important than ever that we maximize our opportunities to be happy and productive. To achieve this, we must think of people as individuals rather than defining them by their age.

We all know people who don’t conform to the set expectations of their physical age. One friend felt she was done with being “young” when she was 22. She found the idea of not being “settled” — a home in a picturesque country town, steady job, mediocre partner — incredibly stressful. Another friend has just turned 50, and in any given week you can find her at some sticky-floored basement venue watching a scuzzy rock bank and drinking industrial-strength craft beer. She and her partner are thinking of moving to a new city later this year. They don’t have new jobs sorted yet, but they don’t seem too concerned.

Greta Pontarelli is a good case in point. Now in her late sixties, the Californian took up pole dancing at the age of 59 and has since landed five world championship titles. She won viral fame after being featured in a video last year for Elle. How many 25-year-olds do you know who have done that?

“People give up on their health and their dreams,” Pontarelli says. “We need more role models to inspire them. I have had many people tell me [that] seeing me dismantled their excuses and inspired them to go after their dreams. That empowers me to keep going.”

Old age is a fake idea.

Pontarelli isn’t alone in practicing a discipline we might associate with youth. A 2015 National Sporting Goods Association study found that 1.3 million Americans ages 55 to 74 enjoyed some kind of extreme sport during the preceding year. And what of romance, the most extreme sport of all? An estimated 12 percent of 55-to-64-year-olds in the United States have used an online dating app. This figure is likely to rise, as one in four Americans won’t be married by age 50. Whether dating, married, or otherwise, two-thirds of individuals ages 65 to 80 remain interested in sex, with 40 percent professing to have active sex lives, according to AARP.

It’s not just about pleasure, either. The 100-Year Life is a study by two professors at London Business School that investigates what our longer lives mean for our careers. They found that there’s little difference between age groups in the workplace. Older workers have as much energy, are as excited by their work, and are as keen to learn new skills as the youngest workers.

Older people want to stay active, they want to fall in love, and they want to pursue new careers. It seems that our expectations and prejudices about age just don’t hold water.

Those expectations are often based, after all, on bad science.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s 2004 book, Aged by Culture, explores the idea that the process of aging has nothing to do with what’s going on in our bodies—rather, it’s cultural. The media-driven war between generations is a key part of this, forcing a wedge between “baby boomers,” “Generation X,” and “millennials.” It’s this hope-sapping agenda that teaches us to fear becoming older.

This can actually be a matter of life and death. Research from Trinity College Dublin has shown that negative attitudes toward aging can have adverse effects on our cognitive and physical health. On the other hand, it’s been found that those who feel younger than their biological age (called “subjective age”) flourish as they get older. They become more conscientious, suffer from fewer neuroses, and are more open to new experiences. Pew Research Center findings show that the older Americans get, the bigger the gap between actual and subjective age. Of those over age 65, 60 percent feel younger than their actual age — some by quite a wide margin.

We’ve seen that feeling young can be the key to being young, so let’s encourage it.

Why do they feel so much younger? The same study found that it’s because they realized that when they got older, not that much had actually changed. They were still the same people. The American Psychological Association backs this. Older people largely enjoy good cognitive and mental health. They are able to learn new skills, are socially active, and remain interested in sex and intimacy. They haven’t magically become different people by virtue of having crept over a certain age threshold.

Old age is a fake idea. Worse than that, it’s a toxic one that makes us ill.

Here’s a utopian ideal: a world in which the “old” are permitted and encouraged to learn new things, to fall in love, to make mistakes, to feel beautiful; in short, to believe life is that myriad of possibilities we consider the prerogative of the “young.”

We’ve seen that feeling young can be the key to being young, so let’s encourage it. There would no longer be a reason to fear aging, at least not in the sense that it closes us off to possibility.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could normalize a second or third round of education — or a first, for those who didn’t have one? We could bring the workforce up to date, address skills gaps, and allow people to switch to more fulfilling careers. Automation could almost definitely plug the gap in the workforce left by those in education. More romantically, what about those who discover later on in life that they want to be painters rather than accountants? Should they be penalized for their youthful prudence?

Exposure to new ideas could curb the reactionary bent we associate with age. Certainly, education in later life has been found to have mental health and cognitive benefits. It can also help us feel fulfilled.

Anne Sadler, a former receptionist and telephonist, completed a degree in social sciences from the UK’s Open University at the age of 70. “Later life should always be about doing things you want and not things you need to do,” she says. “For some, that means relaxing and following leisure pursuits — for me, it was about proving to myself I could still do it and that I always could have.”

Youth Is the Other Side of the Coin

If our stereotypes of older people are misleading, what about those for young people? Adolescence, argues Nancy Lesko, PhD, a professor of education at Columbia University, is also a construct (apologies to Holden Caulfield). Younger people can actually make better managers, according to leadership consultancy firm Zenger Folkman. Millennials in the U.K. would rather bake a cake than work out at the gym, found a survey by supermarket Aldi.

Your author here is luxuriating somewhere between youth and middle age. It is supposed to be the “settling age,” though I’m not really sure I have any interest in that. I’m probably more likely to go backpacking than put down a deposit for a house. Maybe this is all a reaction to dozens of my friends having babies.

Ultimately, this is about a world where people live the lives they want to live, in whatever order. A world in which we don’t think of people as young, old, or middle-aged, but simply as people.

Maybe we ought to take a leaf from Virginia Woolf’s book: “I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.”

Quasi-cultural London-based words guy. Tropical fruit enthusiast.

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