For the last few years, on my birthday, I’ve been deciding how old I was going to turn that year. It had no relation to my actual age, but was more of a reflection of a.) how I felt and b.) what I thought I could get away with. I even made a joke about it. The cake would read “29…Again!” It was fun for a while, and I made no secret of what I was doing. Everyone was in on it. It wasn’t so much that I was denying my actual age, but more that I was making a statement about the arbitrary nature of age itself.
On my last birthday (in November), I decided to take it one step further and declared myself “ageless”. And that’s where I stand today. It’s not because I’m ashamed of my age (I’m not), but rather that I realized that age, in our society, has become one of the main factors by which we judge each other and ourselves. And I’m taking myself out of that game.
When someone asks you how old you are, they use the answer you give them to try and squeeze you into one or several boxes – predetermined categories that help them define how you and they stack up against each other and the world in general. Never mind that there are an infinite number of other variables involved. Never mind that we have no way of knowing what’s really going on with each person, and that we can’t really ever compare ourselves to one another with any semblance of accuracy. Boiling it all down to age is so simple and easy. It gives us such a convenient way to judge others and more importantly, ourselves.
Your Career: If you’ve accomplished more than we expect you to at your age, we’re all impressed with you. “He’s a director at 28.” Someone who is not a director at 35 may now well feel badly about himself in your presence. But he’ll feel great around the guy who’s 50, and hasn’t made the cut yet. The young director is more impressive – he’s seen as more successful – than the older non-director. Is either of them happy? Who cares? Conversely, an older sales person may well intimidate a younger one, before any words are ever spoken. That younger salesguy sees the gray hair and immediately judges his opponent to be more worthy than himself (and therefore, judges himself to be less worthy). Is the older guy a better salesman? Who knows? Experience, which the older guy may or may not have – there’s no way of telling just from his age, doesn’t equal talent and ability. It can, but it doesn’t have to.
Your Looks: Women, in particular, are guilty of this one, but men are catching up. When a woman asks another woman how old she is, it’s almost always in no small part to determine how her looks stack up against her age. If one woman is older, but looks fabulous, the younger woman may take it as a hopeful sign that she, too, could keep her looks as time “ravages” her body (heavy sarcastic note). If, however, the older woman looks better than the younger woman, the younger woman will feel horrible about herself. She’s somehow failed in the looks department. An older woman may look at a younger woman with jealousy, judging herself to be less beautiful because she’s older, or satisfaction, if she herself looked better at that age. We tie age to all kinds of other self-esteem crushing thoughts: If an “older” person is still fit and trim, we respect them. They have a great body for their age. We have an expectation that older people get wrinkly, rounder, slower, and get less flattering wardrobes and haircuts. When someone defies those expectations positively, we will use that to make ourselves feel better or worse, depending on our own issues.
Your Love Life: “He’s too young for me.” Or “She’s too old for me to date.” We select our partners based on many criteria, but almost everyone has some kind of an age restriction. But what exactly is that restriction based on? I used to have a rule: I wouldn’t date anyone younger than me. Then, I switched to “If he’s young enough to be my son or old enough to be my father, he’s out.” But I realized that these, too, were arbitrary limits. If I meet a young man, and I feel like I’m talking to a child, it’s not necessarily because of his age. He’s immature. He might not be physically attractive to me because his features are more boyish than I like them. But I can tell you that without ever asking him his age. Let’s say you meet a man (or woman, whatever your preference is), and you found yourself really attracted to him. You two really hit it off. And then you find out he’s older than you’d like. Would you really stop being attracted to him simply because of that number? If the number of wrinkles he had didn’t turn you off before, why would that suddenly change?
And yes, I do understand that if you want children, etc., age can seem like an important factor. But again, that’s something you can discuss with your potential partner. There are many other variables that play into that and people are having babies later in life than ever. The point is, you’re either attracted to someone or you’re not. You might not be attracted to really wrinkly men or boys who haven’t grown into their manliness yet, to fuddy-duddies who never want to leave the house or someone who wants to spend all their time skate boarding. But guess what? There are fuddy-duddies who are 20 years old, and world explorers at age 90. It’s the traits that are important, not the age.
Your Behavior: People judge us to be either mature or immature, based on our behavior as measured against our age. The biggest problem with this is that there’s a societal expectation for people to get more serious (i.e. mature) with age. So the older you get, the less childlike qualities you should be expressing. Unfortunately, this leads people, who don’t want to be labeled immature in their jobs or social circles, to mute their joy, to become jaded (often called “realistic”), to shut down their ability to daydream and play. I was once told in a job evaluation that I was “too enthusiastic” and it would be helpful on my path to senior management to reign that in. But when we shut down those childlike qualities, when we become serious and stop being delighted by life, when we stop laughing easily and stop seeing everything as a beautiful game, we deny who we really are.
We have countless boxes to squeeze people into; age is just one of the criteria we use to judge ourselves. It comes down to our expectations of where people should be at a certain age, what they should look like, and how they should behave. And once someone tells you their age, those expectations are in place. You see them through that lens, limiting your ability to see them for who they really are. And worse, it limits your ability to see yourself for who you really are.
So, I’ve declared myself ageless. I’m not ashamed of my age. It just doesn’t matter to me anymore, and I refuse to let it matter to anyone else. You’re just going to have to find some other way to judge me, world.
Have you had any experiences where you were judged by your age (or judged yourself based on someone else’s age)? Tell us about it in the comments!