Age, as we all know, is expressed as a number, specifically how many years one has been alive. Age is a measure of time, in other words, with the clock beginning at birth and ending at death.
Beginning around age 30, I’d say, age becomes commonly seen in negative terms in Western society. The lower the number the better and the higher the number the worse, a reflection of the ticking clock that we all have inside us. Turning 40, 50, 60, or 70 is often met with fear and loathing, as entering a new decade of age signifies another step of decline in our youth-oriented culture. The natural march of time is viewed as an enemy, we can say, with each year (or even day) one step closer to death. Older people serve as visible reminders of this underlying sentiment, leading to ageist thinking and practices.
It wasn’t always this way. As I discussed in my Aging in America, people who lived a long life were venerated from the 17th through the early 19th centuries in part because it was quite rare. (In 1790, just 20% of the population lived to be 70 years old.) That began to change soon after the American Revolution; older people at the turn of the 19th century were not exalted as their parents and grandparents had been. Older Americans continued to lose social status as the “cult of youth” gained traction through the 19th century. By the 1920s, oldness was condemned in an increasingly modern society. Old people were considered a drag on the noble pursuit of progress and more people were living longer, making aging a wholly unwelcome development.
Running directly parallel with this “demotion” of aging was our gradual aversion to anything to do with death. Until the Civil War, death and dying were woven into the fabric of everyday life. They were considered and treated as community affairs, sad but entirely natural events. By the late 19th century, however, death and dying in Western society had become viewed as distasteful and grotesque, a perspective that accelerated through the first half of the 20th century. By mid-century, death had displaced sex as the nation’s primary taboo subject.
Today, both aging and death are treated as rude guests which are crashing the party of life. We’re consistently told how to anti-age, age backwards, and reverse-age, not just by cosmetics marketers but by my beloved local PBS station. We want to slow the ticking of the clock lest our bodies do the unthinkable and get old or stop working. We’ve become a nation of Dorian Grays, shunning the once normal, accepted biological truths of aging and mortality.
While it would be wonderful to embrace the ticking of the clock as a celebration of life rather than as a reminder of death, that may be too much to expect for most of us. Our negative views of aging and death are deeply entrenched and thus difficult to overhaul, good reason to consider alternative possibilities if we want to recast them as vital parts of the natural progression of life.
Rather than by time, then, which we consider to be a finite resource that depletes and (erroneously) signifies mental and physical decline, I believe we should define age in terms of experience, which constantly accumulates. Unlike time, we love experience, the more the better. (Joe Pine and James Gilmore even labeled us an experience economy in their classic work of that name.)
As we get older, it follows, we would gain social currency rather than lose it, turning the tables on ageism and our unhealthy dread of death. In such a world, the older one gets the more one would be valued, precisely the opposite of what holds true now.
This idea is akin to the notion of elders who in traditional societies were (and in some cases continue to be) revered for their wisdom earned from life experience. Chip Conley is showing how the concept can be successfully applied in the workplace, a great example of how age can be interpreted as a plus versus a minus. Let’s stop viewing age as a constantly depreciating liability and instead treat it as a continually appreciating asset.