The number on your driver’s license is just a number.
When I was 3 or 4 years old, my preschool class was asked to share stories about our parents, including important descriptors like their ages. I recall my mother’s horror when she heard my story. Although I’d described all the fun activities we did together such as painting, making cookies, and going grocery shopping, Mom latched onto the fact that I told my teacher I thought my mother was 78 years old. She was 30-something.
Thirty years later, I made a similarly offensive and equally unintended gaffe. While giving a presentation about my research to a room of baby boomers, I referred to a test group in one of my studies as “old.” Although the audience found the results of my study compelling, they were offended that I defined “old” as 60 or older. How in the world could 60 be considered old, they questioned? After all, they were in that age group and they weren’t old.
These two anecdotes are funny, but they’re also telling. Whatever their chronological age, people don’t like to be perceived as older than they are. Where does “young” end and “old” begin? And why does it matter?
With the initiation of our Social Security program in 1935, “senior” was defined as 65 and older. But this distinction was relatively arbitrary; an age at which retirement could begin. But baby boomers are the first generation since the enactment of the Social Security program to push back retirement, whether for financial reasons (thank you, economic downturn) or because they just don’t feel “old enough” to retire. People are living much further beyond that arbitrary age of 65. For many people, the period beyond 65 is one of freedom from responsibilities, opportunities for activities previously put on hold due to child-rearing and career life, and a chance to begin “really living” in some sense.
So does chronological age mean anything anymore? An individual who is 85 years old and walking six miles a day, attending lectures about new topics of interest, and having friends over on Friday nights for cocktail hour is experiencing “old age” quite differently than a 65-year-old who has a range of health problems that limit her ability to leave the house. A recent study in Denmark suggests that a person’s perceived age has more influence on how long he or she will live than actual chronological age. So what really matters is how old we “feel.” Maybe the baby boomers are right to resist being called “old.” Is it time to form a new language with which to talk about age?
By Dawn Carr