For the last 12 years, I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to work with people of all ages. Since we live in a society that not only treasures youth, but idolizes and obsesses over it, (thanks Kardashians), suffice it to say our aging community suffers. The devastating loss of an open date book, resilient skin elasticity, and the bounty of energy associated with rapid cell regeneration all hurts a lot. There’s one major caveat; We are all of the aging community.
In my early 20’s, many flight attendants 30+ made passive aggressive remarks about how “old” they are and how ignorantly “young” I was. Now, as I near my last year of my 20’s, occasionally I mention I’m almost 30 to set context. I.E. “Geez, well I’m almost 30 so I think it would be nonsense if I hadn’t figured <insert developmentally mature thing here> by now!” Occasionally I get snapped at, “You’re NOT almost 30! You’re still in your 20’s!”
But…I wasn’t trying to insult myself…
The “Doing it Wrong” Checklist:
#1. You believe that referencing getting older for anyone above 21 is an insult.
Whether it’s from past regret or the idea that you lose something with time, there’s something about aging that stirs fear within you.
#2. You make sour remarks to younger people about what they don’t know or understand yet.
This is one of the most offensive exchanges that I have with people. There is a long list of what’s wrong with this, beginning with the fact that you are not in an exclusive club of honors for having extra years on your belt—and even if you were, you would dismiss any earned respect by patronizing someone who hasn’t done the same (and for reasons that are not their fault, ie THE YEAR THEY WERE BORN).
But assuming you’ve already made a remark like this, there’s more to understand here about what happens when you do this. By abrasively claiming further wisdom than your younger counterpart, you’ve indicated that you have more knowledge but that you are bitter about it. Basically, you sound like a martyr.
(Note: You sound like you’re martyring yourself for simply aging…please think about that for a moment).
Aside from how you sound, the feeling that strikes this younger person is a sense of guilt and shame. Guilt: This younger peer cannot compete with age that you clearly have more of (note: you’ve turned it into a competition by introducing it in the first place) but also can’t deny the fact that they have more years ahead than you do. Shame: The younger person also can’t safely attempt to console you because you’ve put yourself on a pedestal and simultaneously insulted them, as well as yourself. You have left them powerless to navigate this uncomfortable dialogue. Any response means validating your age (thus, adding insult to self-inflicted injury) or attempting to invalidate the quality of one’s youth. Oh, by the way, putting someone in a corner and forcing them to make uncomfortable decisions that serve your agenda (albiet, a self-destructive one) is a form of extortion. Yikes.
#3 You believe certain ages dictate where people are in life and how much they know or don’t know.
Stereotyping is human, it’s normal and to be expected. However, with each personal interaction there’s an opportunity to make space for who that person actually is. Or, you can populate that space with your own assumptions based on how old they are. Sounds kinda bad and unfair, right? You also get to live in the self-affirming fantasy that you’re always right about your assumptions, which is fine and well, but you didn’t actually confirm anything.
#4 Okay, you did stereotype but you WERE right! That person is just the shallow, inexperienced, had-everything-handed-to-me-in-life-never-suffered-for-anything sorority girl you took her for!
Sure, this girl doesn’t share the same dismal weekend plans of checking yelp reviews for a facelift surgeon. But does that mean she has nothing to offer you and deserves to be scoffed at and dismissed? Younger people are usually in the business of seeking and seizing opportunity, so there is beneficial information to be extracted from this encounter—for you or someone you care about.
#5 You believe senior citizens are invisible in this society or you’re afraid that you’re losing relevance.
This is a devastating self-fulfilling prophecy. Recently, I went to a lecture at the SF Zen Center where the speaker had an unusually vulnerable session of tears and confessions, (“Zen Center”—I know, right?). She had said that in her recent gray-haired days people regard her less, cars don’t stop when she’s trying to cross on a crosswalk, and she felt her opinion carried little value in a political meeting she’d just attended. She complained about the over-sensationalization of people narcissistically posting videos online of their babies doing funny things. She disapproved, but moreover, she felt disconnected.
I feel compassionate for this woman (despite being butt-hurt for enjoying those “narcissistic” baby videos), because I know what she’s talking about. Not just the content, but the emotional experience she’s undergoing. She’s feeling isolated and chooses her age to explain it, which is the devastating self-fulfilling prophecy I prefaced with above. When you’re a senior citizen and you’ve noticed a connection decline with age, it seems but obvious that it’s about your age. Besides, there’s a correlation, why not assume it’s causation, too? (This was a tease,
correlation = causation!)
You will always find the answers you’re seeking. Since the youngens outnumber the seniors by a long shot, there’s no way even most of them are relevant and noticed. But they can’t really say it’s because they’re old.
#6 You put yourself down for things indicative of your age and you talk about aging like it’s a misfortune.
I get it—crows feet, fine lines, deep lines, the charming frown lines (that number 11 I’ve been allegiantly cooking up-yes, me!), less freedom and flexibility, more obligations, less sleep, and so on. But since when do we define a person by those things? Since when are you defined exclusively by when you were born?
By living this truth, you are perpetuating the problem. Younger people hear you grieve your youth and learn to believe that aging is a bad thing.
In my earlier days of flying, I remember that I got anxious every time someone older talked about aging like it was an impending doom. I would spend hours thinking about how I could make more of each moment– you know, since my youth was escaping me with each breath. So while all these people were ‘trying to make me feel more grateful and happy with what I had’, it instead induced the opposite; I was stricken by the thought that my life was passing me by and so I constantly strategized to make every moment memorable, of maximum value, interesting and perfect. I stole the time from myself by obsessing about time not yet lost. Every time I forgot to think about time passing (AKA LIVING IN THE MOMENT), I would inevitably run into another adult who was sure to remind me. It sucked.
Now that my skin is not so dewy and vibrant, I don’t get it nearly as much, and I’ve never been so grateful. (Who knew dry skin and sleep deprivation could be such a gift?)
#7 You sometimes compliment a younger person with regretful or condescending add-ons.
You’re not helping by making young people feel like a ticking time-bomb. A sincere compliment can sound like, “You have so much abundant energy!” or “You are so resilient!” or “Wow, you have gorgeous _____.” Qualifying compliments with youth carries the subtext, “but if you weren’t so young, you wouldn’t have the quality I just complimented you on”. It’s… well, backhanded.
The lessons from these behaviors or ways of thinking teach younger people that you become unhappy with yourself when you age. That despite life being a gift, you can be filled with so much distaste for yourself and regrets about your past that you can forget how fortunate you are to be alive. As if the embellishments that make life wonderful are stripped of you with time, a force you can’t control.
So you may think you are just insulting yourself and trying to send a positive message of gratitude for the young, you are actually insulting every young person who will eventually reach the age you are today. If you are not grateful, you are not equipped to send a message of gratitude to somebody else, so please stop telling yourself that it’s an altruistic effort.
Rather than spewing this age-obsessed garbage about fading away, you need to embrace your relevance and impact. I want you to see how powerful you are. You either support the pattern of societal condemnation toward aging or you can proactively break it.
When I was 19 years old and rented my first apartment on my own, I bought a coffee table book at Goodwill about aging gracefully. I wondered-did people really need justification to be okay with their age? I thought everyone knew that insecurity is what took from your grace, not wrinkles. It just hadn’t occurred to me that those things were related (and it didn’t take me long to realize they didn’t have to be). The book’s list of positives for aging was long and robust. Over the years since I owned that book, I was secretly envying older people. I relished the fact that someday not only would I be able to have that sense of comfort and calm, but that people would finally regard me with respect. Meanwhile, I’m living the dumber, younger life that older people often idealize and miss deeply. Put simply, we’re suffering from a bad case of the grass is always greener. The only cure is to implement grateful thinking so that we can get back to the now. I hope that after sharing this, we can start doing this aging thing better. With gratitude comes grace, and there’s just no beauty quite like it.