Growing Older in a Youth-Obsessed Society

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July 6, 2013 by Jean

In my recent appearance on Huff Post Live, I was rendered almost speechless by one online comment shared during the segment:

Who would want to retire? I can’t think of any word more other than death that is so offensive.

I’m guessing that this sentiment was written by a young person, one who has absorbed our society’s fear of aging. There are some cultures in which the elderly are revered for their experience and wisdom, but American society values youth and denigrates age. In this culture, the greatest compliment one can pay an older person is to tell them they seem or look younger than they are. In fashion design competitions like Project Runway, the most cutting critique that judges can make of designers’ efforts are that they look “matronly” or “mother of the bride.” The lesson is drummed in over and over again: good design is youthful. We are told that people can escape aging by adopting a youthful appearance; we can wear youthful fashions, color our grey hair, or “turn back the hands of time” by getting a “lifestyle lift” (cosmetic surgery) that will allow us to feel happy again when we look in the mirror.

In my professional career as a college professor, I have been somewhat protected from the denigration of age. I interact with young people almost every day, but in a situation where I have authority over them, I can teach them things they need to learn, and they treat me with great respect. And as I’ve grown older and become a more senior faculty member, my authority and the respect that students express has grown. When I move outside the workplace, however, (as I’m about to do permanently!) I’m confronted with sentiments like the one quoted at the beginning of this post. Our society seems to assume that youth is a time when we are developing and when our bodies and minds are sharp and capable. Age, by contrast, is seen as a time when we are declining and our bodies and minds are dull and losing their capabilities. So, for the young woman quoted above, retirement = aging = stagnation = death.

I’m not an innocent victim of this cultural attitude toward aging. After all, I’m part of the generation that coined the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” I can distinctly remember being in my late teens and thinking about the turn of the millennium, then more than 30 years in the future. I thought it would be a very exciting time, but I also thought it was too bad that I’d be too old and decrepit (over 50!) to enjoy it.

From this side of 50, the process of growing older looks very different. Because that is what I am doing: “growing older” – with an equal emphasis on both words. I’m not in decline (at least not intellectually or emotionally :-) ). On the contrary, my emotional understanding of myself and of my interactions with others has never been more acute. And I am more intellectually curious and excited about learning new things than I have been in many years. I don’t think I’m alone in this sense that aging is growing. I suspect this is one of the reasons for a research finding that always confounds Americans because it so much runs counter to our cultural expectations – that people become happier as they age. (See, for example, this report on age and happiness in The Economist.)

Interestingly, I do think there is something to the connection between retirement and death made in the comment at the top of this post – but not the connection the young woman who made that comment was imagining, that giving up paid work is a kind of mini-death or a step down the slippery slope of decline leading to death. Retirement is connected to death because, by the time we reach retirement age, most of us have at least begun to come to terms with our mortality. It may just be the realization that we have already lived through more birthdays than we have in front of us. Or we may have come face-to-face with mortality in the death of a loved one. For me, the emotional confrontation with my own mortality came when I was fifty and received a cancer diagnosis with only a 20% five-year survival rate. If what makes youth exciting is the sense that time is infinite and you have your whole life in front of you, what makes older age exciting is the sense that time is finite; every moment is precious and there is so much to do with those precious moments.

It is that desire to slow down and live every moment to the fullest while also continuing to grow and experience new things that makes retirement so attractive at this time of life. Full-time work, even if it is work we love, often demands a pace too fast to savor the moment, and it leaves too little time for all the other living we want to do.

A few days ago, as I was thinking about a plant in my garden, I realized that I didn’t know how to pronounce the German name of the cultivar, because German is a language I know almost nothing about. And, as I do dozens of times each week, I thought, “I should learn something about that.” And then came the new, delicious thought: “I could do that. I could study some elementary German, just some basic vocabulary and pronunciation. I’ll have the time!”

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6 thoughts on “Growing Older in a Youth-Obsessed Society

  1. Diana Studer says:

    that five year anniversary must have been bitter sweet. What fun to be on HuffPo!

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I remember the 5-year anniversary as almost entirely sweet! The only bitter part was that I could no longer get out of onerous tasks at work by implying that I was at death’s door (that worked really well for a while :-) ).

  2. I think I was as short sighted as the commenter when I was younger and just starting teaching watching teachers who were retiring and thinking…wow I have a long way to go. I also thought retirement was death as some teachers I knew died soon after they retired.

    I have been so much happier thinking I can soon do what I want. And surprisingly young teachers are looking at me and thinking I still have so long to go…

    • Jean says:

      Donna, I think it is natural to have different perceptions at different points in the life cycle; what is distinctive about our culture is that it valorizes the perceptions of youth while dismissing those of older age.

  3. Jean says:

    I love this post!

    It really bugs me that younger people are so afraid of looking their ages that they think of aging as something they can cure with the right surgery, product or clothing. When I was growing up the idea that we should respect our elders was common, now it seems to be more along the lines of “don’t go near them, aging is catching!” I love the way my mind works now as opposed to when I was in my twenties. I love having the freedom to spend my time in crazy ways if something peaks my interest. I love being retired. Some people just don’t understand that a career is what you do, not who you are inside. We humans are versatile and retirement really gives you the time to explore yourself in a way you couldn’t when locked into making a living.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I know exactly what you mean about loving the way your mind works now. For me, more accumulated knowledge means being able to make mental ‘hyperlinks’ in a way I couldn’t when I knew less. I was amused a few years ago to notice that my students had begun to describe me as “brilliant” on their course evaluations.

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