Old age starts at 59. What?
Questions about ageing are usually left to philosophers, surgeons and casting agents. But this week, the people had their say.
According to research from the esteemed European Social Survey, the average Briton thinks middle age starts at 36 and old age begins at 59.
It’s a big slap in the face for all those in their 30s and 40s who thought that because they still listened to Triple J, went to tapas bars and had a current gym membership, they still qualified as young.
It’s also a shock for those in their 50s and 60s who are functioning on all (or mostly all) systems. With many of them still working, volunteering or happily spending their kids’ inheritance on travel, they don’t have time to be old.
Having recently completed the Oscar/ex-husband revenge double at 58, director Kathryn Bigelow seems anything but elderly. Gordon Brown is trying to claw back the Prime Ministership at 59 and US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is only just considering his retirement at 89.
None of us really likes to ponder our mortality - particularly in these atheistic times. But thanks to better lifestyles, healthcare and fashions, ‘young’, or at the very least, ‘not old’, can last a really long time. Just ask a cougar.
With Australian life expectancy now clocking in at 81.3 years it seems crazy that you would kiss youth goodbye in your mid 30s and welcome old age before you blow the candles out at 60.
This is particularly strange given the recent news that sex-life expectancy lasts into your 70s. Point being, 58 year-olds can’t be old, because everyone knows old people don’t have sex. Yuck.
Even from a policy perspective these age cut offs make as much sense as Lady Gaga’s new film clip. With governments around the world scratching their heads over what to do with The Ageing Population, shouldn’t we be trying to have less old people, not more?
The study’s researchers argue that defining age is important because ‘age prejudice’ - either being treated as too young or too old - is rife in the community and we should know what age labels mean.
Sixty three per cent of those surveyed said age prejudice was a ‘serious’ or ‘very serious’ issue and a further 28 per cent said they had been treated with prejudice because of their age in the past year (though one wonders what proportion of that 28 per cent were under-aged teens refused entry to pubs).
However, pinning age labels down is a tricky one. Says Professor Dominic Abrams of Kent University, “what counts as young and old is largely down to the age of the beholder.”
Those surveyed between 15 and 24 years old thought that youth ends at 28 and old age begins at 54. At the other extreme, those in their 80s said youth stopped at 42 and old age kicks in at 67 - obviously the young people interviewed had no idea about life and the oldies just picked the last date they could remember.
If anything, what the research shows is that while people have hard and fast definitions about what’s young and old, they are pretty arbitrary, change as we age and are destined to offend people no matter what.
Perhaps that’s why in everyday life there are few official markers of age versus youth. Beyond legal adulthood at 18, it’s all a bit vague until you get your seniors card at 60 and the government starts trying to cancel your drivers licence at 85.
Statistically, many people have careers, mortgages and kids by their mid 30s. But these won’t catapult you into the middle ages unless you let them. The fact that you have responsibilities and no longer attend raves is no excuse for not being young.
As the number of birthdays increase, wrinkles, sagging, mid-life crises, weird hair and retirement crop up along the way. But while these may make you unhappy, poor and unattractive, none of them make you old per say.
Some of our best-loved clichés profess that age is only a construct, man. An internet search of “age quotations” will tell you that age is all in your head, actually makes you cooler and shouldn’t matter anyway unless you are an antique, fossil or French cheese.
So while it would be foolish to advocate the wisdom of a cliché over a piece of scholarly research, you only have to look around to see that the party does not end at 36 and the wake countdown most definitely does not start at 59.
As all good politicians know, sometimes the voice of the people just has to be ignored.
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