Youthful Indiscretions

“We are the future!”, say the young. Wrong! You heard the old man. If we go purely by numbers, we, the old, are the future. In fifty years, over-sixty-year-olds will account for almost half of the Western population. My use of the word “old” is intended to counter the negative connotation of the term which has engulfed our society, driven by a timeless obsession on a pointless journey to find the legendary fountain of youth. Worst of all, we, the old, are the perpetuators of the myth. We give the young no indication that growing old is something to look forward to. On our thirtieth birthdays we plunge into a one-third life crisis, afraid of the decades to come. Our lives are basically over. We will spend our remaining days mourning our lost youth and retire to our degenerating shells, waiting for a redeeming death. We hold a mental funeral with every new wrinkle and for every fallen hair. The most welcome compliment is when someone, after we asked the all-too-common and nonsensical question “So how old do you think I am?”, assumes we are five years younger. That answer deprives us of five years of our life experience, knowledge, and maturity—and does not bother us in the slightest.

However, this will not be another essay on how ageing can be an utterly fascinating adventure. If it was, I would tacitly align myself with the ubiquitous call to age successfully, which infuses in us the seed of our very own exclusion. “Ironically, positive ageing has produced its own tyrannical imperative”, sociologist Andrew Blaikie reminds us, “unless you work at being liberated from chronological destiny, you are less than normal”.[1] So while debunking the myths of ageing must be endorsed purely on the strength of its ambition (see for instance Eric Larson’s piece for the KR) we risk falling into the normative and crippling positive ageing trap. Dispelling all the generalisations and stereotypes of ageing might thus well trip on its own aspiration. By neutering old age for mass consumption, we risk marginalising those elderly who indeed do experience the undesirable effects of ageing. In Haim Hazan’s wise words, “It would be easy to refute the alleged universality of this and all other stereotypes [about aging]. The point here is that stereotypes are useful for camouflaging the social arrangements which we impose upon the aged member of our society.[2]

The Myth of Narcissus underlies Oscar Wilde’s timeless ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. There, Lord Henry Wotton, a perfect devil of the decadence, warns Dorian that life won’t be worth living once he loses his youth: “Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…. Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing. . . . A new Hedonism — that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol.” ((Reference: Wilde, O (2007 [1891]). The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited. p19.)
When Polish poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote, “Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art”, he was wrong. Indeed, age is the ultimate gift from nature for not starving, accidentally dying, or being eaten. Rather than portraying age as a challenge that by its very nature can only be lost, it is time to see age as what it truly is: a powerful cultural concept. And by trying to defy age and rejecting nature’s gift, we all, without exception, dig our own stigmatising grave. “Of all the stigmatised groups we know of”, Erber and Szuchman state in their recently published book “Great Myths of Aging”, “the older adult age group […] is the only group that every person will join, assuming a long enough life; and […] is likely to include people whom we love and care about.”[3] It might be exactly this perceived inevitability, however, which makes old age’s professed anguish so richly palpable, that we lock the prospect of ageing, the one trait almost all humans share in common, away in the attic of the far away future. We all want to become old, but do not want to be old, or worse even, appear old.

This should remind us that stigmatisation and exclusion does not necessarily occur outside of the cohesively imagined group of the elderly. It likewise takes place within the stigmatised group itself. In fact, it is here where we find some of the most blatant instances of stigmatisation. Constantly being confronted with one’s ‘Otherness’ can be so disconcerting and frustrating that the incentive to conform to prevalent societal views is particularly persuasive for members of already stigmatisable groups. Such examples are ready at hand, as in the case of ‘straight-acting’ being the main unit of erotic measure for many millions of gay men. Or black women chemically altering (or using the commonly applied euphemistic term ‘relaxing’) their hair at adverse health effects or wearing wigs and weaves at exorbitant costs (watch actor and comedian Chris Rock’s hair-raising documentary ‘Good Hair’). Or India’s unfair obsession with lighter skin. Or the double fold eyelid surgery being the most common aesthetic procedure performed on Asian patients, both male and female. Or how students at British Universities feel they need to hide and alter their accents in order to progress in their careers. (Dr Alexander Baratta from Manchester University recently even equated ‘accentism’ with racism. “You can’t underestimate how important accents are,” he said. “Changing it can undermine your sense of being”.)

What renders this an unpopular discussion is that the distinction between perpetrators and victims is far from clear cut. It doesn’t take much to convince a knuckle dragging ignoramus to hate women, the fat, or Blacks, or gays, or Asians, or the old, or [insert stigmatised aspect/behaviour here]. Yet being part of a stigmatised group does not automatically confer common sense and common decency[4].  Stigmatising and being stigmatised is indeed something with which all humans deal to varying degrees. So perhaps the talented writers of the musical ‘Avenue Q’ taught us the most truthful and enlightening lesson: everyone is a little bit [insert stigmatising practice], if we all could just admit, that we are [insert stigmatising practice] a little bit, and everyone stopped being so PC, maybe we could live in Harmony!

Still, what renders ageism the most striking example of self-destructive stigmatisation, is that it concerns us all, without a single exception. Just like any other stigmatised group, older people tend to be fraught with belonging uncertainty and are persistently conscious of their potential devaluation. Compensatory conformity might be a tactic to avoid this prospect by siding with the hegemonic group and conforming with their position. But how far do we need to walk down that road before we see where it leads? Surely, we understand that it is a game we can only lose?

This criticism also holds true for the history of ageing studies in general and the bias towards youth found in many of today’s industries and governments is also, and arguably even more so, widespread within the social sciences. Even in the late 1950s, it was already conceded that youth had and continued to be the conventionally favoured period of investigation. Meanwhile, age-related research incited uncomfortable feelings so the lack of research was often justified by considering the elderly unsuitable subjects for dispassionate examinations. Certainly, the study of ageing has undergone a remarkable evolution from ignorance and complete lack of interest to an ever-growing field of inquiry with a specific identity. While before World War II ageing remained virtually absent from the academic discourse, the 1940s saw a sudden increase in interest in the trials and tribulations of old age. It was nearly three quarters of a century ago when The Gerontological Society of America, the first American organisation committed to fostering the scientific study of ageing, was founded. Three years later, French demographer Alfred Sauvy famously exclaimed that “the danger of an eclipse of Western civilisation owing to lack of replacement of its human stock cannot be questioned”.[5] Thereafter, ageing gradually became the squeaky wheel that got the grease, and many investigations were carried out with more consistency and an arsenal of surveys. In the words of Blaikie, however, the discipline “now marginalised later life not by ignoring it, but by focusing on the specific conditions of those over pensionable age – the ‘problems of the elderly’”.[6] Today, ageing as a subject of public interest and academic analysis has developed further reach and greater depth. And luckily, “the old” no longer only show up in the records when they are a problem. Yet, our age-denying tendencies are now concealed under the surface sheen of positive ageing. Four years ago, in a passionate appeal to weave the elderly back into the fabric of society, László Andor, the European Union’s Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, stated: “the key to tackling the challenges of an increasing proportion of older people in our societies is ‘active aging’: encouraging older people to remain active by working longer and retiring later, by engaging in volunteer work after retirement, and by leading healthy and autonomous lives”. [7]

Paradoxically, it is precisely a forceful fear of ageing which appears to be the driving force behind the call for successful, active ageing. Considering all the medications, potions, and treatments directed at the ageing population, it does seem as though we have now channelled most of our resources towards people who — by biological fact — we cannot possibly save from old age, i.e. all of us. The emphasis on physical functioning, ability, and longevity dismisses the subjective experience. We thus tend to marginalise the elderly and transform them into a quantifiable and detectable group of sick, useless people, in which the body can be measured and classified to prolong the life preceding it. Yet the years we gained will be devoid of meaning. Indeed, the horrible ageing mentality is so ubiquitous and convincing in both social and medical discourse that we rarely discuss how age is as much a socially constructed reality as any other reality; heavily influenced by a variety of hegemonic economic, social, and cultural forces. We talk of age as though it were an external seed maliciously placed within us, watching us, guiding us, and directing our lives with external vigour whilst we struggle to remove the intruder to make our lives fulfilling again. But by neglecting to discuss the malleability and uncertain nature of age, we come to perpetuate the exclusionary tendencies we strived to overcome with the positive ageing discourse in the first place.

The only way we can release old age from its negative and normative straightjacket, is by becoming aware of how we, the old, are the makers of our own misery. By incessantly trying to appear younger than we are, we present age—and, as such, our own future—as a crisis, a burden, an injury. Let us resist the intoxicating flavour of youth and use the term ‘old’ to not only convey frailty and decline but also knowledge, wisdom, and experience. And let us give the young something to look forward to by treating age as a gift from nature. So next time someone asks you: “How old do you think I am?”, Respond as follows: “Based on your wisdom and experience, you must be old.” It is a compliment.


[1] Blaikie, A (1999) Ageing & Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: Blaikie, A (1999): p209.

[2] Hazan, H (2000 [1994]). The Personal Trap: The Language of Self-Presentation. In: Gubrium, J.F. and Holstein, J.A. Aging and Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers: p16.

[3] Erber, JT and Szuchman, LT (2015). Great Myths of Aging. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons: p3.

[4] See for example Tafarodi, RW, Kang, S, and Milne, AB (2002). When different becomes similar: Compensatory conformity in bicultural visible minorities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,  28, 1131–1142.

[5] Sauvy, A (1948). Social and economic consequence of the ageing of Western European pupulations. Population Studies. 2 (2): p123.

[6] Blaikie, A (1999) Ageing & Popular Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: p51.

[7] Andor, L (2011). Active Aging: The European Union’s Employment Initiatives. Available: Last accessed 10th Aug 2015.


Tobias Haeusermann finished his Ph.D. in Sociology at King’s College, Cambridge. He is now working at the Health Ethics and Policy Lab in Zurich.