Jan Baars on the paradoxes of aging—with assists from Thomas Cole and Eric Weiner

I recently came across a passage about contemporary aging so concise and insightful that I had to post it. It’s from a review by eminent gerontologist Thomas Cole of Aging and the Art of Living, by Jan Baars.

We live in an era when ever-faster, ever-larger flows of information and images fly around the globe, leading to a cultural acceleration of everyday life. When this acceleration meets chronometric time, Baars notes, two paradoxes emerge: (a) “premature cultural senescing” in which individuals live longer but are called old at earlier ages; and (b) the desire to stay young but grow older, which is the cultural creation of a huge antiageing industry in medicine and in commercial products that promise to maintain youth. These paradoxes result from the contradictory desires of long life and infinite youth. Our culture produces them because it suppresses and tries to control finitude and our increasing vulnerability over time—those things that in Baars’s view are the condition of our “spontaneity, discovery, creativity and uniqueness.” (p. 84)

Yes, yes, yes. I already knew of Baars, whom Cole describes as “the premier philosopher of aging.“ Possibly my favorite quote in my book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, is his:  “Autonomy requires collaborators.” What brought him back to mind was a wonderful essay by “philosophical traveler” Eric Weiner called Old Age Is Not a Pathology, which contains another passage well worth quoting:

Old age is not a disease. It is not a pathology. It is not abnormal. It is not a problem. Old age is a continuum, and everyone is on it. We’re all aging all the time. You are aging right now as you read these words — and not any faster or slower than an infant or a grandfather.

Agreed, and beautifully put. I take issue, though, with another point Wiener makes:

Philosophy helps us define our terms. What do we mean by “old”? Chronological age misses the mark. It is meaningless. It tells us nothing about a person, says the contemporary philosopher of aging Jan Baars. “Chronological age is not the cause of anything.”

Chronological age tells us far less about a person than we think it does, and the older the person the less the number reveals. But it is not meaningless. Being young is different from being old, and age is a key component of identity. Baars, on the other hand, nails it again. Myriad factors shape our lives—benefactors and tormentors, hardships and windfalls. Age marks when we encounter them, but no more.

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