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Why People Today Say They Feel Younger Than Ever

Subjective age, bias, and manufactured survival.

Key points

  • Subjective age bias is the feeling that you’re younger than your actual age.
  • New research shows that subjective age bias is on the increase.
  • Financial stability and good health are the keys to a youthful old age.
Photo by Aaron Caleb Fishbein
Source: Photo by Aaron Caleb Fishbein

There’s an old saying: “You’re as young as you feel.” And psychologists even have a word for that. They call it subjective age.

There’s some truth to that adage as well. Research shows that subjective age is a good predictor of physical and psychological well-being. Those who feel younger are generally in better health, while those who feel older than they really are generally suffer from worse health.

Age Is but a Number

When people report that they feel younger than their actual age, psychologists say that they have a subjective age bias. Some researchers speculate that subjective age bias is a mechanism for dealing with age discrimination. By feeling, and acting, younger than they really are, older people may be able to avoid some of the social repercussions of being old, such as being denied job opportunities or exclusion from certain social groups.

Subjective age bias can also be a form of social comparison. We compare ourselves to others who are similar to us to judge our standing in society. For example, a 60-year-old who still feels and looks like she’s 50 can boost her self-esteem by comparing herself to others her age. This leads her to think: “They’re old, but not me.”

People vary widely on many different traits. It’s probably always been the case that some people have felt younger than their age. Likewise, there would have been those who felt older than their age.

However, as Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany) psychologist Markus Wettstein and his colleagues point out in an article they recently published in the journal Psychological Science, there’s some evidence to suggest that older people nowadays are feeling younger than ever. The goal of their study was twofold, first to determine with a very large sample whether subjective age bias really was on the increase, and second to explore some of the reasons why this might be the case.

Feeling Younger Than Ever

For this study, the researchers analyzed data collected from nearly 15,000 German men and women aged 40-85. These data had been collected as part of a larger study on aging in Germany. To test their hypotheses, the researchers noted each participant’s birth year, chronological age, subjective age, and several items about their lifestyle and health.

The results showed that at each birth year, there was a fairly wide range of subjective ages. That is to say, some people feel younger than they are, others feel older, and others still feel their actual age. This is just what the researchers were expecting; this finding was no surprise.

However, the researchers’ hypothesis was that subjective age bias is increasing historically. That is, they predicted that older people nowadays would feel even younger than older people of previous decades did. To test this hypothesis, the researchers divided the participants into three cohorts, those born in the years 1911-1935, 1936-1951, and 1952-1974.

In doing so, the researchers found that subjective age bias has indeed increased with each successive cohort. For instance, let’s take age 65 as our benchmark. On average, those in the 1911-1935 cohort reported that they felt on average about five years younger than their actual age. Those in the 1936-1951 cohort averaged a subjective age bias of eight years. And those in the youngest cohort, born between 1952-1974 said they felt 11 years younger than their actual age on average.

The Keys to a Youthful Old Age

Why are older people nowadays feeling younger than ever before? Wettstein and his colleagues considered several possibilities.

One explanation, as we’ve already pointed out, has to do with age discrimination. Modern society is enthralled with youth. Especially for older adults who don’t look their age, there may be the temptation to pass themselves off as younger than they really are.

As the researchers point out, there’s a trade-off in acting younger than your age, in that you may avoid age discrimination. But at the same time, you can lose out on valuable social interactions with your age peers, who, after all, you likely have more in common with.

However, another explanation is that older people today are healthier on average than those of the same age in previous decades. One important reason is that very few people smoke nowadays compared with the past, and that alone has had a big impact on overall health. Another reason is that we have much better healthcare, leading to a considerable increase in life expectancy over the last century.

The researchers were surprised by one aspect of the data, though. Specifically, they’d expected people in their late senior years to have little or no subjective age bias. This is because of a phenomenon known as manufactured survival, in which people in poor health have extended lifespans due to medical interventions even though their quality of life is not good.

But that’s not what the researchers found. On the contrary, subjective age bias continued to increase as people aged. For instance, people born late in the first cohort (1911-1935), who are now in their 90s, reported a subjective age of only around 78 on average. This suggests that manufactured survival isn’t an issue, at least for the participants in this study.

The researchers do point out a weakness in the current study—all participants lived in Germany, an affluent country with a strong social safety net and universal healthcare. This means that the current findings may not be applicable to less developed countries. Still, the results do suggest that if you’re financially stable and in reasonably good health, you’re likely going to feel younger than your age well into your senior years.

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Wettstein, M., Wahl, H.-W., Drewelies, J., Wurm, S., Huxhold, O., Ram, N., & Gerstorf, D. (2023). Younger than ever? Subjective age is becoming younger and remains more stable in middle-age and older adults today. Psychological Science. Advance online publication.

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