How Our Perception of Age Changes as We Grow Older
“Old age is always fifteen years older than I am.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
When I was in my mid-20s I was being trained by an older coworker. I asked her how long she’d been in her position and she said she’d started in 1974. “Oh my god, you’ve been working here since I was in second grade!” I replied with a laugh.
The woman didn’t find it at all funny and told me so. I thought she was being too sensitive.
Fast forward 25 years. One my millenial employees asked me when I had moved to Oregon. When I said 1993, her eyes widened in shock and horror and she said, “Wow, I wasn’t even born in 1993!”
In that moment I had a flash of insight into why my coworker was upset with me years ago. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to throat punch my staff person or burst into tears. Turns out that joke is not so funny when you’re on the “wow, you’re old” side of the equation.
I thought about this again recently when another young woman asked me how long I’d been working in my field. When I said about 25 years, someone else piped in, “Wow, that’s a quarter of a century.”
When I used to do a lot of running, us slower runners had a joke that the definition of a slow runner is anyone slower than you. People who ran a seven minute mile thought the nine minute milers were “slow” and the nine minute milers thought the 11 minute milers were “slow”. It strikes me that aging is the same way: in my mind old is anyone who graduated high school before I started kindergarten.
When I was in my 20s I thought 35 was middle-aged and people in their 50s were “old”, now that I’m in my 50s I think 50 is middle aged and people in their 80s are old. Someone mentioned the other day that their father was sick, and attributed it to age, and when I heard he was 70 I protested, “He’s not even old.”
Somehow as we age, our perception of age changes. Our definition of “old” keeps moving up. We look at people our age and think they look older than us. We often don’t think of ourselves as the age we are. In my head, for example, I’m 19 years old. I still think I’m young and cool and fun, until I hear my knees crack and millennials look at me in amusement because I don’t know what snapchat or a bitmoji are.
It turns out I’m not alone. Michigan State University did a study on perception of aging that included half a million Americans. The study, published last year, found that perception of age consistently changes as we ourselves age. The older we get, the younger we feel.
The study found that since people consider aging a negative experience, we want to avoid it by never reaching “old age”. Thus we skew our definition to keep ourselves young.
Maybe the key to feeling young is to spend time with people who are much older than you. I was at a 99th birthday party for my aunt last year and she said, “You young people talk so fast.” I looked at her and asked, “What young people?” and she said, “You.”
When I pointed out that I was in my 50s she said, “Well, you’re young compared to me.” I’ve never loved my aunt more than I did in that moment.