When I began this project, “How old do you feel?” didn’t sound like a loaded question. Ann Shulgin, wife of pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin, writes in TiKHAL that, “ You always feel like you’re thirty-three.” That seemed about right to me. The calendar and the mirror dictate the truth, but even as flesh sags and “senior moment” stops being a laugh line, I feel fully engaged, at the height of my intellectual powers, reluctant to trade my bikini for a one-piece with sensible skirt or my dancing shoes for sneakers. (A profound WASPy terror of becoming one of those scary old women who teeter along in heels and short skirts should keep my wardrobe in check.)
Clearly most middle-aged people feel younger than we are. Clearly, too, some of this age creep is not delusory but based on measurable social change. Young people used to finish school, get married, and have kids in their early twenties; now it often take decades to pass those adult milestones. More active lifestyles, healthier diets, hip replacements and COX inhibitors all forestall the pain and immobility that were once the inescapable hallmarks of aging. In 1978, Webster’s Dictionary defined middle age as “between forty and sixty.” Miriam-Webster Online now pegs it as “the period of life from about 45 to about 64,” hedging with disclaimer-friendly “abouts.”
The tendency to conceive of yourself as younger than you are seemed perky and optimistic at best, harmless at worst. Clearly the tendency is widespread: a number of studies document the tendency to knock a few years off one’s age. In a 1963 study of 1700 older Americans, “At age 60 only a small proportion classified themselves as old, and at age 80 slightly over half called themselves old. A small percentage of the 80-year-olds persisted in describing themselves as young.” Another survey taken in Elmira, New York, found that “only a little more than a third of people over 60 thought of themselves as old. Nearly two-thirds called themselves ‘middle-aged.’” Certainly most of us would peg the next stage at a spot down the road just a little further than where we happen to find ourselves at the moment. Having come of age during the youth-glorifying 60’s, couldn’t we boomers claim a little extra indulgence?
In Growing Old in America, David Hackett Fischer comments on the “thirty-nine syndrome” (a masculine weakness, not a feminine one, by the way), noting that it peaks at around 50 but never entirely disappears. “Even octogenarians in America today prefer to be 79, according to the most recent evidence,” he observes. Jack Benny got a lot of mileage out of that gag — humor based on assumption, as Fischer points out, “that most people have always wanted to be younger than they are, and probably always will.”
“Duh,” I thought. “That’s the way people are, the way society works.” Then I kept reading. In fact, as I describe in the Shooting for gerontophratria post, American attitudes towards aging have shifted radically since colonial times. Think on this: it used to rock to be old! In the 18th and early 19th centuries, people added years to their ages rather than subtracting them. Fischer is blisteringly clear about the implications of the modern transition:
Gerontophobia is a highly destructive attitude, destructive most of all to those who adopt it — for in the end it is always directed inward upon the mind it occupies. Gerontophobia begins as a loathing of something in others; it ends as a loathing of something in oneself. In the end, the discovery that one is old is inescapable. But most Americans are not prepared to make it. Instead, their age suddenly becomes apparent to them in a brutal way which allows no vestige of dignity or pride to survive the discovery.
This has caused a major shift in my thinking. I now realize that to exalt the people in this book as acting or feeling younger than they are would be to do my readers a grave disservice. The struggle for all of us is to come to terms, as realistically and gracefully as possible, with the fact of aging. We fear death. We are vain. We can’t stop the clock.
But most of us have a good deal of control over how we age, in terms of lifestyle and attitude. Although chronological age should not be denied, there is enormous variability in the ways it manifests itself in individuals. In that sense, it’s true that the people in this book are exceptional examples. It’s also true that we are only as old as we feel, because that feeling governs the way we present ourselves to the world. And we’re very much in charge of how we present ourselves. I work in an office of twenty or so people, most of whom are in their early 30s. The office manager is 58. He’s overweight, complains constantly of his aches and pains, and can’t wait to bail from the hurly burly and go watch TV in Florida. He’s old already. When I learned that he and I were basically the same age, I worried that through some creepy contagion, this would make me age in my colleagues eyes. Dumb, huh? Also destructive and mean-spirited.
It’s logical to associate vigor and beauty with youth, to feel “young” when we ski a difficult slope or master the tango. “Healthy older people do feel strong and vigorous, much as they did in their earlier days,” writes Robert Butler in his Pulitzer Prize-winning screed Why Survive? “The problem comes when this good feeling is called ‘youth’ rather than ‘health,’ thus tying it to chronological age instead of to physical and mental well-being.” 
The question is what should I, and by extension my generation, aspire to:
— health, rather than youth?
— the clarity and strength to avoid dissembling, as a first step in combating our internalized ageism.
— and some of the traits (a few will do for each of us) that the older workers interviewed for this project possess.
More thoughts to come, for sure.
One thought on “Youth creep — what does it signify?”
She quotes May Sarton: “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It’s a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.” As I commented on Facebook,” I used to think this “youth creep” was benign, but in Look Me In The Eye Old Woman, Cynthia Rich posits that it’s a form of internalized ageism: that we should be amazed by our bodies’ transformations during the entire life course, not increasingly detached from the aging face/body the mirror. Interesting.”