The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

How Old Is Old?

Mattering never stops mattering.

I hope I die before I get old.
- "My Generation" by The Who (1965)

I recently led a workshop for mental health professionals, and in the ensuing question and answer period, someone referred to 60-year-old adults as old. Given that I am recently on the other side of sixty, I was taken aback and immediately protested. "No, no, no - sixty is middle-aged," I said. Indeed, for the past few decades, I have always described middle-aged as however old I happen to be, plus or minus five years.

Our exchange was light-hearted, but there are some interesting issues that it highlights. Given that the populations in most industrialized nations are aging and given trends toward increased longevity in these nations, the question "How old is old?" deserves to be addressed with more than banter.

By a coincidence, right after the workshop, I heard a BBC radio show that addressed precisely the question "How old is old?" by discussing recent survey results from different nations (e.g., The Nielsen Company, 2011). People of course differ in how they answer this question, and not surprisingly, the younger someone is, the younger he or she sees "old" to be. Furthermore, about one third of those from "older" nations say that one only becomes "old" if over 80 years of age, whereas fewer than 1% of those from "younger" nations use 80 years of age as the cutoff. I guess I'll stay put in the United States for the duration!

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Developmental psychologists have long made distinctions among life stages based on age. For example:
• Infancy (birth to 2 years)
• Childhood (3-12 years)
• Adolescence (13-19 years)
• Young adulthood (20-29 years)
• Adulthood (30-39 years)
• Middle age (40-54 years)
• Old age (55+ years)

This is just one scheme, and many others exist. Some theorists add in new stages (e.g., tweens, the old old), and others expand the age ranges of one or more of these stages (e.g., if one pursues higher education, adolescence arguably stretches far into one's twenties or even one's thirties). There are no consensual answers, of course, because identifying stages of life in terms of chronological age tries to make categories out of a continuum and moreover ignores individual psychological differences among those of the same chronological age. We all know "young" sixty-year olds, and "old" twenty-year olds.

 

That said, changes with age can and do occur - biological, psychological, and social - making it reasonable to offer at least rough generalizations across the lifespan. "Act your age!" is an admonition based on assumptions that have some grounding in chronological reality. So, we expect adults to be more responsible than children, if only because adulthood is when most people are working and raising children of their own.

However, we should also recognize that "old" is a shifting and fuzzy designation. We should be cautious - as individuals or as a society - in imposing a uniform cutoff on ourselves or others with respect to what one can or should do when of a certain age.

And perhaps the positive psychology take home message of this entry is that what may matter is not "how old is old" but rather how one feels about being "old" (or middle-aged or young). An important line of research by Becca Levy at Yale University shows that younger adults with more positive attitudes toward aging are healthier when they do become older adults, even when the usual risk factors for poor heath are statistically controlled.

It is a cliché to observe that the contemporary US is a youth-oriented culture, and I exemplified this attitude with the anecdote that began this essay. As a 60-year old, I do not want to be regarded as "old" because our society does not take older people seriously. Until society changes, perhaps I should change myself and recognize that the best way to be taken seriously, regardless of one's chronological age, is to matter to others. The way one matters will differ as a function of age, of course, but mattering never stops mattering.

References

Levy, B.R., Slade, M. D., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longitudinal benefit of positive self-perceptions of aging on functioning health. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 57, 409-417.

Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., and Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 261-270.

Levy, B. R., Zonderman, A. B., Slade, M. D., & Ferrucci, L. (2009). Age stereotypes held earlier in life predict cardiovascular events in later Life. Psychological Science, 20, 296-298.

The Nielsen Company (2011). The global impact of an aging world. New York: author.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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