Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why Does It Matter?

The number you get when you subtract the year of your birth from the current year is just a number. For most of us it is a two-digit number. My birthday is this week and my number is between 47 and 65, which makes me a ‘baby boomer’. My oldest friends know the exact number because they’re been in my life for a long time. Friends I’ve had for 25 years or less might be able to guess the number if it mattered to them; it generally does not matter to them. Friends I’ve made within the past ten years generally would not be able to guess; that’s my impression anyway.

I know the age of nearly everybody I know but the only people I ever say my age to are doctors and one fitness trainer who couldn’t understand why I would claim a higher number than the real one. Bless her. I have to admit that I am quite obsessed with ignoring my number. My mother had the same obsession and maybe that is where I learned it. She was significantly older than the mothers of my elementary school classmates but she only looked a little older. There was age bias even then and it definitely exists now. That is part of my hang up.

Certain kinds of behavior are associated with specific age ranges. It makes sense in some cases, teens for example. They are basically old children and are in a volatile period of their lives when they are learning to become adults. Forty-year-olds have achieved some kind of maturity and life experience and their behavior, manner of dress and attitudes are much different than that of teens, as it should be. Eighty-year-olds are at a point in their lives where bodies and brains are wearing down but in many cases they can do everything they did in their 40s, just at a slower, more careful pace.

Culturally there is a big difference between a 16-year-old and an 80-year-old. Few octogenarians will be in the audience at a Lady Gaga concert, for example. But what is the real difference between a 47-year-old and a 65-year-old, the bookend ages of boomers? Many at the low end of that range are just achieving their career goals while many at the other end are retiring. However, I have a friend who retired from her first career in her forties and I have a 66-year-old co-worker. Does the age number matter to either of them? I have a 50-something friend who recently married a 70-something man. Does the number matter to them?

American culture worships youth; we used to respect our elders but that is largely a thing of the past. Yet some of our favorite famous people are older than they seem. Some examples: Bono (50), Madonna (52), Kevin Costner (56), Pat Benatar (58), Bruce Springsteen (61), Diane Sawyer (65), Sam Waterston (70), Barbara Walters (80). None of them have retired. Each in their own way is a role model for aging; each defies the stereotype.

I defy the stereotype too, but I am still reluctant to say the number. I am not at either end of the boomer range but a 62-year-old lawyer recently told me I look 47. I’ll go with that because that’s how I feel and act. Of course, just saying that indicates that I also buy into some of the negative attitudes associated with age. But they are other people’s attitudes, not mine. I’ll get over this hurdle and one day people will be writing about me in an article like this one … in thirty or forty years.

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