Am I old now ….
I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am. – Francis Bacon
We each have our own views on this, but it is also useful to see what research has found. A study looking at: ‘Age Differences in Age Perceptions and Developmental Transitions’ examined this topic through a study of 502,548 internet respondents. That’s one heck of a research sample!
The age range was from 10-89 and asked people: (a) the age they would like to ideally be, (b) the age they feel like, (c) the age they hope to live until, and (d) how old other people think they are.
Most research is focused on subjective age: (b) the age people feel like. Many adults say that they feel up to 20% younger than their biological age and this is associated with many health benefits (1,2).
Younger people also have views on how old people think they look, their interests and activities (3).
Older adulthood is an identity that carries significant stigma (4).
Many people want to distance themselves from a stigmatized group, in this case, older adults. They thus, associate older adults with weaknesses, resource waste and more. This can mean that we, as older people can prefer to identify with those who are middle aged instead. We don’t want to be part of that older stigmatized group!
When we hold negative views of older people it can be harder as we age; we don’t want to be part of this group for whom we have held negative views. So, we seek to create more psychological and physical distance between us and this group (5) and are more likely to report feeling younger than we are and saying that other people see us as being younger than we are.
People, both young and old, don’t want to be associated with age groups that are considered less desirable. This leads them to alter how they think about ageing.
The study explored how people of different ages perceive ageing and when they believe certain life milestones should happen. Key points from the research:
Trying to feel younger: Both teenagers and older adults want to be connected with age groups that are looked upon more favourably. So younger people want to be associated with people who are older, and older adults like to imagine themselves to be younger, and living longer, possibly because being old reminds them of the end of life, which is a subject few want to talk about.
What is “Old”? it depends on who you ask: People have different ideas about when old age starts based on factors like physical health, mental abilities, remaining lifespan, or traditional standards. Interestingly, the older a person is, the later they believe old age begins. For example, in a survey by Pew (6), young adults (18-29) thought 60 was old, but people over 65 thought that being old starts at 74. This ties in with the categories I used in my research with 60-74 bring the young-olds (y-olds), 75-89 the olds and 90+ the old-olds.
Stretching middle age: As people go through middle age, they tend to think of this period as lasting longer than younger people do. This is a positive and there are health benefits to believing that middle age lasts longer, such as having a lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, as well as recovering better from illnesses (7).
Older People think of themselves as younger: Older individuals see themselves as older, but still younger than their actual age. This means that if someone is 70, they might have a subjective age of 60. You may like to re-read my article How old are you in your head.
Older people think milestones happen later: Older individuals believe that important life events and changes (like retirement or a mid-life crisis) happen later in life compared to what younger individuals think.
Avoiding the ‘Old’ label: As people age, they don’t like being associated with the negative aspects of being old. To avoid feeling like they are part of an older, sometimes stigmatized group, they mentally try to separate themselves from this group. They do this by thinking of themselves as younger and also by wanting to live longer.
Older people pull and push milestones: Older individuals adjust their perception of when life milestones happen, making them think that younger milestones are closer to their current age and older milestones are further away. This helps them feel relatively younger (8).
Possible change in perceptions: Many studies focus on making people more aware of the negatives of ageing, fewer have looked at the positive side. One study (Becca Levy – publicised in her book – Breaking The Age Code) showed that teaching older adults to associate positive words with ageing helped them have a more positive view about ageing and even improved their physical health.
In a nutshell, the study tells us that as people grow older, they think of themselves as younger than they are and believe life milestones occur later. This is partly because they don’t want to be associated with the negative stereotypes of old age. More research is needed to find ways to make people’s views on ageing more positive. Let’s call out negative views.
1 – Rubin, D. C., and Berntsen, D. (2006). People over forty feel 20% younger than their age: subjective age across the lifespan. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 13, 776–780. doi: 10.3758/BF03193996
2- Mock, S. E., and Eibach, R. P. (2011). Aging attitudes moderate the effect of subjective age on psychological well-being: evidence from a 10-year longitudinal study. Psychol. Aging 26, 979–986. doi: 10.1037/a0023877
3 – Kastenbaum, R., Derbin, V., Sabatini, P., and Artt, S. (1972). “The ages of me”: toward personal and interpersonal definitions of functional aging. Aging Hum. Develop. 3, 197–211.
4 – Levy, B. R., and Banaji, M. (2002). “Implicit ageism,” in Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons, ed T. D. Nelson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), 49–75.
5 Cesario, J., Plaks, J. E., Hagiwara, N., Navarrete, C. D., and Higgins, E. T. (2010). The ecology of automaticity how situational contingencies shape action semantics and social behavior. Psychol. Sci. 21, 1311–1317. doi: 10.1177/0956797610378685
6. Taylor, P., Morin, R., Parker, K., Cohn, D. V., and Wang, W. (2009). Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality. Available online at: http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2010/10/Getting-Old-in-America.pdf
7. Barrett, A. E., and Toothman, E. L. (2014). Baby boomers’ subjective life course and its physical health effects: how distinctive is the “forever young” cohort? Int. J. Aging Hum. Develop. 79, 109–129. doi: 10.2190/AG.79.2.b
8. Kuper, H., and Marmot, M. (2003). Intimations of mortality: perceived age of leaving middle age as a predictor of future health outcomes within the whitehall II study. Age Ageing 32, 178–184. doi: 10.1093/ageing/32.2.178