Age isn’t about numbers

Our culture is obsessed with age, and I’m beyond sick of it.

I’m irrationally angry with people who judge others by the numbers on their birth certificate. With people who hide their age or lie about their age. I’m disgusted by the marketing and demographics research that is pivoting on what we should want based on age, and how to play to our age-related insecurities to get our money.

I want to harm, just a bit, those who say things like “The big three-oh” or “over the hill.”

Age is a mythology. Numbers are misleading and indicative of very little. Why? Because the amount and quality of living poured into each day, each month, and each year is wildly different for each person.

A man whose parents die in his teen years is substantially older once he gets to college than most boys who’ve been out of college for years.

A girl who was abused by a loved one is both wise and scared beyond her years.

A man who looks up as his life proceeds, making decisions about what he wants and how he wants to be is older and wiser than a man who puts his head down and does what he’s expected to.

A woman who falls into requirements set by someone or something outside herself is infinitely younger than women who make difficult choices.

Twenty with the decks stacked against you? Forty and never had to do a thing for yourself? Sixty and following your dreams? Thirty and stymied by all the options? Eighty and fighting hard? Fifty and scared? In each of those combinations, the number mattered very little. What I see is decks stacked, inexperienced, passionate, confused, engaged, and scared. Who cares how old: those are very, very different people with different lives and basic human needs, none of which care about birthday candles.

Everyone has different experiences: joys, sorrows, expectations, hopes, deaths, surprises, disappointments. There is a delicate balance of what happens to you and what you choose and I’m not here to argue that everyone has the same chances or that people need to do things differently than they are doing right now.

What I’m saying? Is that none of it is about age. It’s about the life that fills your years that colors who you are.

35 thoughts on “Age isn’t about numbers

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Life is more than just the years accumalated.Do you see the age rings of trees that stand tall and proud? No the rings are on the inside. And the same goes with us. Doesn’t experience count? Maturity levels are stunted in youths that never grow up. There are adults that are completely rooted in the past. You are SO RIGHT. Age is a lie. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  2. Preach it sister! I feel the same way. When I see college students now and then remember what I had to do when I was their age, I just roll my eyes. It’s not the age, it’s the experiences that shape us.

  3. So funny–you and I posted alike this morning. This month I’ve been on such a journey of questioning the labels I put on myself and others. Age is a biggie–and attached to so many “shoulds” that just aren’t that helpful. Life requires bravery at any age–so should it surprise me that my kids are sometimes more brave, more mature than I am? I want to give myself more and more permission to defy or ignore these labels and be _me_, just as I’m made.

  4. I love this. It’s true, of course. (Most of your writing is.) It’s also thought provoking. (Ditto that last parenthetical.) As you know, I am turning a certain age in a few months. And Sweetie is 13 years older. And it doesn’t matter. But then, it’s a good conversation, sometimes. People are always SHOCKED when they learn Sweetie’s age. “Oh, you don’t LOOK 52!” As if he shouldn’t be 52. As if there’s some LOOK that goes with 52. But then, someone told me the other day they were surprised I was ONLY 39. Where am I going with this? I don’t rightly know. I’m glad you wrote this post today. It says what I want to say when others comment absurdly upon the age difference between me and my Sweetie. As if we shouldn’t be together, have a family or, GASP, be sharing such sordid details of our birth year.

  5. Those first years do matter says the contrarian in me, but that is all about experience too, huh.
    Age is more relative than absolute.

    • cake yes absolutely I took a shortcut and didn’t mention that the first 15 years oandthe last 15 are probably quite different than everything else.

  6. You couldn’t tell this to my grandmother, the quintessential Southern woman. The courthouse in her small Mississippi town of birth burned down when she was in her fifties or something, and so the official records were destroyed. From then on, she just listed her age on drivers licences or whatever as seven years younger than she actually was. Age mattered to her, a lot. And then she lived to be 93 (official) years old. She dyed her hair jet black to the day of her death.

    Of course, she also gave me the advice that I should always wear lipstick and let men think all the good ideas were theirs, so I’m not saying I’ve chosen to emulate her in all matters. Or any, really.

    • Kristin, it’s not her fault she was a product of a society that valued women for silence, obedience, and youth.

      As long as she didn’t set the fire… ;-)

  7. I work with young moms who have been through more than I have in my life and have quadruple the wisdom I could ever imagine. Some count them out because they are young, still officially in their teens. It doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced life. This is so eloquent.

  8. I’ve been recently struggling with my current age and the age I will become. Thanks for the shake up. I need to let go of my own personal “ageism”. Instead, I need to focus on becoming and being and savoring.

    • Jane, given your kindness, humor, amazing parenting, and generous friendships, I’m thinking age is the last thing you should be worrying about. But that’s easier said than done, I guess.

      I just know I never think about a number when I think about you.

  9. I’ve always been old beyond my years. You are correct – it is the life you live that defines your age. I see it in my kids – my youngest is years ahead of his peers that don’t have older siblings – and that’s an easy case to make. I’m trying not to be scared about my age – 42 is pretty old to be starting over again.

    • Cathy, you’re starting something new but not starting over. You’re not fresh out of school unsure what you want. You know more about yourself now.
      And I don’t think “old” about starting anew until about 102 or so…

  10. Isn’t it amazing how the time we spend each day means different things for different people? The silver-spoon fed teen who never lifts a finger compared to the working since 13 teen are not the same age by far in maturity. You’re right; it’s not about the number. It’s about the experience.

  11. I totally agree. I was overly fixated on numbers too, until I turned 40, and knew that I needed to feel something else *besides* dread. I began exercising (thanks for your nice comment on my post!) and now I feel the youngest I ever had. It has nothing to do with age!

    • I’m almost 40 Cecilia, and I’m so excited. There are a lot of things I want to do by then, but if not by my birthday, I like the pride of saying “I started that when I was 40.” It’s a gorgeous number. So’s 50. And 60. And 70, 80, 90…

  12. Right on! I pay so little attention to age that I often forget how old I actually am. Or at least I HOPE that’s why I forget…

    • I don’t know how old most of my friends are, Cyn, and I certainly don’t get caught up in the “she’s a little older and she’s a little younger” stuff. I’m vaguely aware that a few of my friends are more than a decade older or younger, but even that is only if I try really hard to think about how old they are.

  13. Laurie Anderson: “Language is a virus”
    But it’s still something to go on. We label everything about each other, in groups, it’s a kind of shorthand, a reference point for talking or writing. One-on-one it is much easier to see the real person and discard the labels. The reference points are often belittling, dehumanizing, disrespectful. Our job is to try to stay open-minded, right? About others’ true natures and about their intentions when they say stuff (even stuff like “the big 3-0”). What do you think?

  14. Yes, Laurie. I understand and empathize with the self doubt and pain that come with age obsession and I feel anger toward a culture that makes people desperate about a number or feel less about themselves because of their appearance.

    Thanks for calling me on the shorthand.

  15. I remember standing at the counter of a convenience store years ago. I had a few minutes to buy pads, as I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter. The customer at the counter was working her way into a snit because the store was out of a product she wanted and she refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her. She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothing and the sort of fussy highlights in her stylish hair that announced that she spent lots of money on her appearance. She was growing more and more angry.

    I was too weary to feel impatient. I wanted to lie on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed, where she suffered with a yet-undiagnosed but clearly life-threatening malady. Due to hospital rules I hadn’t been able to see my three-year-old except for brief hugs in the parking lot, otherwise not leaving my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Her life seemed to be ebbing away, every drop of milk I could get into her seemed like hope.

    The customer ahead of me was now yelling. It seemed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but the age of her maturity was less than my firstborn, who knew well enough to respect others. As I finally made my own desperate purchase and exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, I felt grateful. To walk around so coddled that empathy and patience were absent seemed like not knowing what it meant to be fully alive. As you say, it’s about the life that fills your years that colors who you are.

  16. Laura, I’m so sorry to hear that your baby had a rough time. I’m sorry it made those weeks harder for your older child. I can’t imagine your desperate struggle between nurturing and sadness. And I’m sorry for us all that moments like the one in the convenience store drain us. Bit as you point out, at least we can find gratitude in being fully alive, and in the empathy that we have for others, regardless of age, circumstance, or appearance.

    • I should have mentioned, that desperately ill little baby is now strong and healthy. She had a rough first few years. But I wouldn’t trade my struggles with anyone, even those who seem to have had no struggles at all.

      • Oh, Laura, I’m so glad your daughter got stronger. Her age, for now, is absolutely about the numbers. Yay for big numbers for our children!

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