David Russell, Ph.D.

David Russell Ph.D.

Distress in Context

Social Experiences that Make You Feel Older

Events and transitions that influence age identity

Posted Nov 25, 2011

Many people feel younger or older than their actual age. Age identity captures the subjective side of aging: the age that someone feels they are. An example might be a person who is 35 years old but feels that they are more like 25 years old.

Researchers have identified a number of social experiences that hasten change in age identity across time. A change in age identity over time is also referred to as subjective aging. Subjective aging is a dynamic process that is influenced by a person's chronological (actual) age as well as their life conditions and experiences. Interestingly, researchers have noted that teenagers tend to feel older than their actual age while middle-aged adults tend to feel younger. However, there are certain groups of experiences that accelerate the process of subjective aging and break down a youthful identity. These include role transitions, off-time events, stress and adversity, and health and well-being.

Role Transitions and Off-Time Events

Social norms shape the beliefs people have about how their lives are structured and the types of things they should be doing at any given age. Some events and transitions are deemed off-time if they occur too early or late in a person's life. One off-time experience that has been shown to accelerate the process of subjective aging includes the death of a parent during childhood. Children who lose a parent before they reach adulthood feel significantly older than similar children whose parents are still living at that time. Similarly, the loss of a child is also an off-time event. A study of middle aged adults found that those who experienced the death of a child felt five years older on average than those who didn't experience this event.

Stress and Adversity

A growing body of research in the life-sciences has found that people who experience high levels of chronic stress tend to have older biological ages than those exposed to fewer stressful events. Turbulence in our social lives, including financial problems and work-related troubles, also has a subjective graying effect on age identity. Stress and adversity leads individuals to feel older by reducing positive affect and lowering their sense of control. A large national study found that teenagers who felt unsafe in their neighborhoods or witnessed violence often reported older subjective ages than their peers who lived in safer neighborhoods and were not exposed to violence.

Health and Well-Being

Not surprisingly, those who develop health problems feel significantly older than people who are relatively healthy. The onset of a serious illness, such as cancer or heart problems, can be a reminder of one's own mortality and accelerate the process of subjective aging. In addition to physical health problems, the extent of someone's mental health has a powerful impact on how old they feel. Those who have greater positive affect tend to feel relatively younger than individuals who report feeling less happy, cheerful, and calm. The reverse is also supported—that having a younger age identity is associated with lower negative affect, feeling less nervous, afraid, and distressed.

Western Culture, and specifically the United States, is more individualistic and youth-centered. Americans tend to have younger age identities relative to people in other countries. In societies that value youth, having a younger age identity has a protective influence on psychological well-being. A cross-national study of adults in the United States and Germany found that people with younger age identities (those who felt younger than their actual age) tended to report greater life satisfaction and more positive affect.

Suggested Reading

Johnson, M.K., & Mollborn, S. (2009). Growing up faster, feeling older: Hardship in childhood and adolescence. Social Psychology Quarterly, 72, 39-60.

Schafer, M.H., & Shippee, T.P. (2010). Age identity in context: Stress and the subjective side of aging. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73, 245-264.

Westerhof, G.J., & Barrett, A.E. (2005). Age identity and subjective well-being: A comparison of the United States and Germany. The Journals of Gernotolog, 60B, S129-S136.