Youthful indiscretions

Tobias Haeusermann
September 8, 2015

“We are the future!”, say the young. Wrong! You heard the old man.  If we go purely by numbers, we, the old, are the future. In fifty years,  over-sixty-year-olds will account for almost half of the Western  population. My use of the word “old” is intended to counter the negative  connotation of the term which has engulfed our society, driven by a  timeless obsession on a pointless journey to find the legendary fountain  of youth. Worst of all, we, the old, are the perpetuators of the myth.  We give the young no indication that growing old is something to look  forward to. On our thirtieth birthdays we plunge into a one-third life  crisis, afraid of the decades to come. Our lives are basically over. We  will spend our remaining days mourning our lost youth and retire to our  degenerating shells, waiting for a redeeming death. We hold a mental  funeral with every new wrinkle and for every fallen hair. The most  welcome compliment is when someone, after we asked the all-too-common  and nonsensical question “So how old do you think I am?”, assumes we are  five years younger. That answer deprives us of five years of our life  experience, knowledge, and maturity—and does not bother us in the  slightest.

However, this will not be another essay on how ageing can be an  utterly fascinating adventure. If it was, I would tacitly align myself  with the ubiquitous call to age successfully, which infuses in us the  seed of our very own exclusion. “Ironically, positive ageing has  produced its own tyrannical imperative”, sociologist Andrew Blaikie  reminds us, “unless you work at being liberated from chronological  destiny, you are less than normal”.[1] So while debunking the myths of ageing must be endorsed purely on the strength of its ambition (see for instance Eric Larson’s piece  for the KR) we risk falling into the normative and crippling positive  ageing trap. Dispelling all the generalisations and stereotypes of  ageing might thus well trip on its own aspiration. By neutering old age  for mass consumption, we risk marginalising those elderly who indeed do  experience the undesirable effects of ageing. In Haim Hazan’s  wise words, “It would be easy to refute the alleged universality of  this and all other stereotypes [about aging]. The point here is that  stereotypes are useful for camouflaging the social arrangements which we  impose upon the aged member of our society.[2]

When  Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote, “Youth is the gift of nature,  but age is a work of art”, he was wrong. Indeed, age is the ultimate  gift from nature for not starving, accidentally dying, or being eaten.  Rather than portraying age as a challenge that by its very nature can  only be lost, it is time to see age as what it truly is: a powerful  cultural concept. And by trying to defy age and rejecting nature’s gift,  we all, without exception, dig our own stigmatising grave. “Of all the  stigmatised groups we know of”, Erber and Szuchman state in their  recently published book “Great Myths of Aging”,  “the older adult age group […] is the only group that every person will  join, assuming a long enough life; and […] is likely to include people  whom we love and care about.”[3] It might be exactly this perceived  inevitability, however, which makes old age’s professed anguish so  richly palpable, that we lock the prospect of ageing, the one trait  almost all humans share in common, away in the attic of the far away  future. We all want to become old, but do not want to be old, or worse  even, appear old.

This should remind us that stigmatisation and exclusion does not  necessarily occur outside of the cohesively imagined group of the  elderly. It likewise takes place within the stigmatised group itself. In  fact, it is here where we find some of the most blatant instances of  stigmatisation. Constantly being confronted with one’s ‘Otherness’ can  be so disconcerting and frustrating that the incentive to conform to  prevalent societal views is particularly persuasive for members of  already stigmatisable groups. Such examples are ready at hand, as in the  case of ‘straight-acting’ being the main unit of erotic measure for many millions of gay men.  Or black women chemically altering (or using the commonly applied  euphemistic term ‘relaxing’) their hair at adverse health effects or  wearing wigs and weaves at exorbitant costs (watch actor and comedian  Chris Rock’s hair-raising documentary ‘Good Hair’). Or India’s unfair obsession with lighter skin. Or the double fold eyelid surgery being the most common aesthetic procedure performed on Asian patients,  both male and female. Or how students at British Universities feel they  need to hide and alter their accents in order to progress in their  careers. (Dr Alexander Baratta from Manchester University  recently even equated ‘accentism’ with racism. “You can’t underestimate  how important accents are,” he said. “Changing it can undermine your  sense of being”.)

What renders this an unpopular discussion is that the distinction  between perpetrators and victims is far from clear cut. It doesn’t take  much to convince a knuckle dragging ignoramus to hate women, the fat, or  Blacks, or gays, or Asians, or the old, or [insert stigmatised  aspect/behaviour here]. Yet being part of a stigmatised group does not  automatically confer common sense and common decency[4].  Stigmatising  and being stigmatised is indeed something with which all humans deal to  varying degrees. So perhaps the talented writers of the musical ‘Avenue Q’  taught us the most truthful and enlightening lesson: everyone is a  little bit [insert stigmatising practice], if we all could just admit,  that we are [insert stigmatising practice] a little bit, and everyone  stopped being so PC, maybe we could live in Harmony!

Still, what renders ageism the most striking example of  self-destructive stigmatisation, is that it concerns us all, without a  single exception. Just like any other stigmatised group, older people  tend to be fraught with belonging uncertainty and are persistently  conscious of their potential devaluation. Compensatory conformity might  be a tactic to avoid this prospect by siding with the hegemonic group  and conforming with their position. But how far do we need to walk down  that road before we see where it leads? Surely, we understand that it is  a game we can only lose?

This criticism also holds true for the history of ageing studies in  general and the bias towards youth found in many of today’s industries  and governments is also, and arguably even more so, widespread within  the social sciences. Even in the late 1950s, it was already conceded  that youth had and continued to be the conventionally favoured period of  investigation. Meanwhile, age-related research incited uncomfortable  feelings so the lack of research was often justified by considering the  elderly unsuitable subjects for dispassionate examinations. Certainly,  the study of ageing has undergone a remarkable evolution from ignorance  and complete lack of interest to an ever-growing field of inquiry with a  specific identity. While before World War II ageing remained virtually  absent from the academic discourse, the 1940s saw a sudden increase in  interest in the trials and tribulations of old age. It was nearly three  quarters of a century ago when The Gerontological Society of America,  the first American organisation committed to fostering the scientific  study of ageing, was founded. Three years later, French demographer  Alfred Sauvy famously exclaimed that “the danger of an eclipse of  Western civilisation owing to lack of replacement of its human stock  cannot be questioned”.[5] Thereafter, ageing gradually became the  squeaky wheel that got the grease, and many investigations were carried  out with more consistency and an arsenal of surveys. In the words of  Blaikie, however, the discipline “now marginalised later life not by  ignoring it, but by focusing on the specific conditions of those over  pensionable age – the ‘problems of the elderly’”.[6] Today, ageing as a  subject of public interest and academic analysis has developed further  reach and greater depth. And luckily, “the old” no longer only show up  in the records when they are a problem. Yet, our age-denying tendencies  are now concealed under the surface sheen of positive ageing. Four years  ago, in a passionate appeal to weave the elderly back into the fabric  of society, László Andor, the European Union’s Commissioner for  Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, stated: “the key to tackling  the challenges of an increasing proportion of older people in our  societies is ‘active aging’: encouraging older people to remain active  by working longer and retiring later, by engaging in volunteer work  after retirement, and by leading healthy and autonomous lives”. [7]

Paradoxically, it is precisely a forceful fear of ageing which  appears to be the driving force behind the call for successful, active  ageing. Considering all the medications, potions, and treatments  directed at the ageing population, it does seem as though we have now  channelled most of our resources towards people who — by biological fact  — we cannot possibly save from old age, i.e. all of us. The emphasis on  physical functioning, ability, and longevity dismisses the subjective  experience. We thus tend to marginalise the elderly and transform them  into a quantifiable and detectable group of sick, useless people, in  which the body can be measured and classified to prolong the life  preceding it. Yet the years we gained will be devoid of meaning. Indeed,  the horrible ageing mentality is so ubiquitous and convincing in both  social and medical discourse that we rarely discuss how age is as much a  socially constructed reality as any other reality; heavily influenced  by a variety of hegemonic economic, social, and cultural forces. We talk  of age as though it were an external seed maliciously placed within us,  watching us, guiding us, and directing our lives with external vigour  whilst we struggle to remove the intruder to make our lives fulfilling  again. But by neglecting to discuss the malleability and uncertain  nature of age, we come to perpetuate the exclusionary tendencies we  strived to overcome with the positive ageing discourse in the first  place.

The only way we can release old age from its negative and normative  straightjacket, is by becoming aware of how we, the old, are the makers  of our own misery. By incessantly trying to appear younger than we are,  we present age—and, as such, our own future—as a crisis, a burden, an  injury. Let us resist the intoxicating flavour of youth and use the term  ‘old’ to not only convey frailty and decline but also knowledge,  wisdom, and experience. And let us give the young something to look  forward to by treating age as a gift from nature. So next time someone  asks you: “How old do you think I am?”, Respond as follows: “Based on  your wisdom and experience, you must be old.” It is a compliment.


[1] Blaikie, A (1999) Ageing & Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: Blaikie, A (1999): P209.

[2] Hazan, H (2000 [1994]). The Personal Trap: The Language Of Self-presentation. In: Gubrium, J.F. And Holstein, J.A. Aging And Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers: P16.

[3] Erber, Jt And Szuchman, Lt (2015). Great Myths Of Aging. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons: P3.

[4]  See For Example Tafarodi, Rw, Kang, S, And Milne, Ab (2002). When  Different Becomes Similar: Compensatory Conformity In Bicultural Visible  Minorities. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin,  28, 1131–1142.

[5] Sauvy, A (1948). Social And Economic Consequence Of The Ageing Of Western European Pupulations. Population Studies. 2 (2): P123.

[6] Blaikie, A (1999) Ageing & Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: P51.

[7] Andor, L (2011). Active Aging: The European Union’s Employment Initiatives. Available: Http://Journal.Aarpinternational.Org/A/B/2011/03/8878375a-42ab-4387-ab59-0572c614f540. Last Accessed 10th Aug 2015.

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Tobias Haeusermann