Should you keep quiet about your age, or wear it with pride? The importance we attach to age is relatively recent. Just a few generations ago, it was a piece of information that was hardly ever mentioned. But these days, along with our occupation, our age is one of the two most-asked questions when we meet someone — with the politeness that once forbade men from asking a lady’s age long consigned to the dustbin of good manners’ history.
Some see such an approach as a refusal to grow old, others as excessive vanity and others as a sign of narcissistic weakness. But oddly enough, few see it as the mark of a free spirit who doesn’t want to be confined to a category that age creates.
French sociologist Bernard Ennuyer notes that age is a social construction that aims to classify and categorise people, and it begins early. Children are assessed based on whether they are “ahead” or “behind” their peers. (People tend to forget that Albert Einstein was wrongly diagnosed as mentally disabled because he couldn’t talk by the age of four.) Beyond a child’s behaviour, age also dictates what emotions he’s allowed to feel and express. Who hasn’t been told as a child, “Crying is for babies”.
Things don’t get any better with adulthood. On the contrary. The list of things for which we become “too old” grows with every birthday. In this respect, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed that “age classifications always come down to setting up limits and producing an order all must follow, in which all must stay in their place.”
For women, clothes are too revealing past a certain age, and long hair and bikinis are in bad taste. Thirty-somethings without children hear people warn, “Your biological clock is ticking.” As for elderly people, there’s no escaping common preconceptions.
“Very early on in our societies, the image of a curved age scale imposed itself, with an apex at around 40 or 50 years old before the irreversible and final decline in a depreciated old age,” sociologist Jean Fourcart observes. “Of course, this diagram contains many variations and exceptions, but it profoundly and durably affects the psychology of elderly people, who internalise the degradation of their social status.”
Some give up cycling and skiing when they turn 60 because most femoral neck fractures occur after 60. Others give up projects they enjoyed because they believe they’re too old to be taking risks and setting challenges.
Wise people are right when they say life has many prisons, both physical and mental. Some may have seen the following on the internet: “The founder of Facebook started his project at 19, founders of WhatsApp and Wikipedia at 35, Intel’s founder at 41, Coca-Cola’s founder at 55, the founder of KFC at 65. Morality: There’s no right age to succeed, and there are no failures — only people who give up.”
To these examples, we must add Francis Crick, one of the scientists who discovered DNA and died at age 88 during his career’s most prolific stage. And there is 96-year-old Klaus Obermeyer, founder of Sport Obermeyer who refuses to define himself by age. This US-based German swims a mile every day in addition to muscle development exercises, skiing and aikido. “Being old is no excuse to be lazy,” he says.
It’s interesting to note that the threshold for old has changed dramatically over time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, at least in the West, 40 was the magic number. In the 19th century, that limit was pushed to 50. Nowadays, several studies show that people consider old age to begin at 69, on average. People under 25 believe it begins at 61, while those over 65 say it’s 77. And 8 per cent of people say old begins at 80.
“This also changes as medicine continues to make progress,” explains Francesco de Boccard, a physician who specialises in preventive and anti-ageing medicine. “A baby born in 2016 has a great chance to live to see 2116,” he says. “At 50 years old, he’ll have lived half his life and will be considered young by all of his contemporaries.”
Scientists actually differentiate between two types of ageing. The first one, chronological, is obvious. The second, biological, depends on how our cells age. “Ageing expresses itself in a different way from one person to another,” Boccard says. “Some people start having grey hair and wrinkles at 25, others at 45. We’re not all equal in ageing.”
It makes little sense to use chronology to assess a patient’s age. “We calculate biological age using multiple criteria,” he says.
The environment and food habits play an obvious part. A 30-year-old smoker’s lungs and skin can be typical of a 50-something who doesn’t smoke. But a healthy individual who efficiently protects himself from oxidative stress cannot always fight against his genes. For example, the length of telomeres, these little DNA structures located at each end of chromosomes and which become shorter when cells divide and age, vary from one person to another. An individual who’s born with short telomeres could appear biologically older more quickly.
Ultimately, the most relevant answer to the question, “How old are you?” is in turn a question: “What age do you mean? Biological, social, chronological? And if you mean the latter, which calendar do you have in mind? Gregorian, Julian, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Hebrew, Muslim, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian?”
Isadora Duncan’s age varied depending on the circumstances. The American dancer refused to have her accomplishments assessed by how many times the earth rotated around the sun since her birth. So she spent her life losing her passport.
Dominic, who was born 60-odd years ago, has decided not to be part of the standard reality anymore, choosing a world and calendar of his own. When asked his age, Dominic says about 2,500 years. “I’m an old soul,” he explains. And why would we contradict him?
— Worldcrunch/New York Times News Service
Amanda Castillo is a news editor at Swiss daily, Le temps.