The Victor Is Mature
In 2018, a Dutch man aged (?) 69 invites a court of law to affirm his right to re-assign himself as (?) 49. His application is made on the basis that his life-chances (in business and in love) are depleted by the official information that he is 69 when/since he actually feels in himself that – such are his health, wellbeing and confidence – he is much less than that. So, his wannabe writ would run, he should have the right to declare himself to be 20 years younger than his birth certificate would indicate – just as a man of whatever lifestage might wish to re-identify as a woman. If gender is a fluid scale then why not age? I am healthy, virile, competent and so, in a society still poisoned by anti-old prejudice, it is not justifiable for either the State or society at large to associate my life with automatic decrepitude. QED.
Around the same time, the original lump of platinum alloy which, in the late 19th century, was declared, presumably in perpetuum, to be the prototype of one kilo was retired. In the form of an application of Planck’s Constant, quantum mechanics took over the role of ultimate weight-umpire. The established measurement methods for the ampere and the kelvin, also presumably once thought immutable, were similarly overhauled at the same time (not strictly, in any sense here, an accurate way of putting things). The practical day-to-day changes which flow into all our lives from these particular innovations may be infinitesimal. But they were endorsed in the name of greater accuracy and they were endorsed by a vote of scientists in Paris. Sure you can feel the resonance of our story here : the redefinitions were affirmed on a vote. Nobody in quantum will ever say that they have a lock on absolute truth. And so, the new system can be thought good – for now.
Mr. Ratelband’s initiative is, we argue here, a bale in the winds of change, a re-scaling of old certainties.
So Much Older Then, Younger Than That Now (apologies to Bob Dylan)
Consider this. In the year when England won the World Cup around 112,000 women under the age of twenty took their marriage vows in England/Wales; by the opening of this decade through which we all pass and in spite of the very substantial population increase which has occurred since those days, the figure had fallen to less than 3,000. In a way, it’s just downright odd to be too conformist or conservative now. In the theatre of intimacy, we are all allowed to experiment with partners before settling – if indeed settling is in our thoughts at all. It is in this landscape that we must set the whole business of ageing and the choices we all as individuals can make. In 1966 also, of all those women getting married in their sixties only 7% of them had been previously divorced; as this decade began, the same figure was 66%. Sexagenarian marriages are not yet super-common but…
There is a further social aspect to this, specially telling. More women are having babies, specially first babies, later in life than would once – indeed for all times previous – have been considered the heavy medical and social norm. ONS data tell us that in the first fifteen years of this century, the number of live births to women over forty doubled in Britain to around 30,000. As we look overseas, something of a similar picture emerges. Official French data (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques), for instance, reports that one new-born infant in twenty now has a mother aged over forty. The US Census notes that babies born to mothers in the age-band 45-54 increased by 20% (from a low base) in the period 2007 to 2015. The US CDCP, the official numbers-gathering body, reveals that:
“The first birth rate for women aged 40-44 was steady in the 1970s and started increasing in the 1980s. The rate more than doubled from 1990 to 2012”.
Though it is not quite a vibe for our general argument here, let’s note too that nowadays some 40% of American births are to women who are not married; the equivalent for the UK is just less than 50%; for France, the figure (2016) is 60% – as against only – and what a chunky shift this is – 38% in the mid-1990s.
First Settlers Draft The First Constitution
The energising premise here is that ageing is not a bit like Belgium. It is, in fact, the new Antarctica, a continent without a constitution helpfully written on an iceberg. No pioneer tribes have ever really settled in numbers here before; there were never any lush beaches or bountiful flora waiting for them. Over the decades, a few reached the perimeter and made it inland. But now, with full-speed-ahead, colonisation is spreading and multi-coloured flags are being planted on the stormiest, wettest continent of all, once not capable of tolerating much of a hint of human village.
It’s easy to argue that age is (what used to be colloquially known as) a social construct, something which is most truly visible through a prism of biology and psychology, not just the bald number typed on a form your Mum completed at the town hall all those years ago. Those young women who had kids before they were 20 in the 1960s will have grown old – let us argue here – in ways much different to their 21st century sisters who may never marry but have their first child in their 40s, if they have any at all.
Not all human songlines echo through the decades in a straight and identical hum.
The notion of a subjectively defined age has stimulated a debate, at once populist and academic, about its consequences for human wellbeing. Studies performed at the University of Montpellier would confirm that those of us who genuinely feel, say, no more than 40 when we are actually 58 have, in elevating and (as it were) practising this very thought, compressed our morbidity and enhanced our wellbeing. As one related study published in the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry in 2014 put it:
“Even after accounting for chronological age and other risk factors for cognitive decline, such as disease burden and sedentary lifestyle, the subjective experience of aging predicts cognitive functioning in old age”.
To work at resisting the signs of ageing and even to trick yourself into the belief that you are actually still only 40 will – this is the implication – underpin your happiness. Is the Ratelband initiative so far away from this implied Weltanschauung? Can the weight of a 58 year old be indeed usefully re-assigned? Why not?
Age Is Not A Prime Number
It is a commonplace of trends analysis and they surveys which accompany that the older the citizen gets the further forward he/she pushes the definition of old age. A Pew study, for example, from as far back as 2009 had it that less than two-thirds of Americans thought that even to be 75 years of age was not necessarily to be old. It’s an obvious enough point : in, say, a European Union where already 28 million people are 80 or over (and in many quarters with another 10 years on average to live), nature’s chronology gets socialised in new and dynamic ways.
For millions of Rinklies are powering through the decades, never having smoked cigarettes, often choosing cleaner diets along the way, aware that the death-chit diseases of yesteryear no longer hold the thrall they once did, keeping their weight down and their skin clear, ready to manage their online image as well as any Millennial, feeling perhaps distinctly un-imprisoned by the choices (once considered set in concrete) they made many years before….
It is not that 60 is the new 40. It is that to describe any adult by resting on one number is not a reliable way of counting any more. Millions are leading the life elastic. Trying to turn the clock back through the courts may bring early ridicule down on those who try it but it is a lot more future-striking than the work of those age lobbies who think that the Third Age should really be about faster stair-lifts. Ageing is just not a pre-cast prospectus of victimhood and decline. And we should all get in this groove.
We are grateful to the Trajectory Partnership for revealing in a recent study that one third of British over-65s are disappointed that companies who would sell them things continue to treat them as old – quite right too; in this entire constituency, to be formally 67 years old (as it were) means that you still count as middle-aged. The time-kilo just does not weigh the same any more.